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CBS's Hail Mary

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That, however, is about to change. For four decades, networks have invested millions, then waited for the leagues to deliver scintillating entertainment. ABC took a beating on last year's lame Monday Night Football schedule. NBC, shut out of the NFL, thought it had made safe, if pricey, bets on basketball and the Olympics -- only to be dealt a lockout (the NBA), the retirement of a god (Michael Jordan), and two corruption scandals (Salt Lake City and Sydney). With the stakes in the billions, TV is looking to reduce the risk.

There have already been instances of media moguls tweaking their on-field product: The recent signing of pitcher Kevin Brown to a $15 million-a-year deal was widely interpreted as a move by Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of the Dodgers, to deliver a sexier TV show for his Fox network, at least every fifth night, and propel the team into the revenue-rich promised land of the playoffs.

Murdoch's maneuver may soon look timid. Media companies will push beyond docile ownership of the Mighty Ducks and Hawks and Cubs. The future is active control of entire leagues by entertainment companies. TNT (a tentacle of Time Warner) and NBC, the bitter losers in 1998's bidding war for NFL television rights, are planning to launch their own pro-football league. "It's gonna happen," says TNT sports executive Harvey Schiller. He'll begin meeting with potential sponsors and cities in the next couple of months.

The CBS-NFL deal shows how valuable a decent football season can be to a struggling prime-time lineup. Imagine the profits if CBS could increase the percentage of gripping Sunday afternoons by canceling lousy teams as fast as it dropped Buddy Faro.

"Clearly, the haves and the have-nots in baseball, for instance, have created a real problem," says Bryant Gumbel, the CBS and HBO journalist who began his career at NBC Sports. "If you don't have money, you're not a contender. So do we wind up consolidating the weak teams? Does a G.E., if it is broadcasting baseball, turn around and say, 'You know what, I'm gonna buy the Royals, the Brewers, and the Reds and we'll put them into one team, and we'll play in all three cities, because it gives us, the network, a more viable TV product'? Michael Jordan was not far removed from that idea during the NBA lockout when he turned to Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Wizards, and said, 'Look, if you can't afford it, get out.' "

Fans should be thrilled. The worst problem in pro sports isn't greedhead owners and bonehead athletes; it's a surplus of rotten teams. Scripting real sports as if they were a Stone Cold Steve Austin match would be a disaster. But c'mon: Who really wants to sit through Islanders games?


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