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NFL's battle with video company may leave draft prospects in dark

The NFL's college advisory committee may find it next to impossible to render informed opinions on the readiness of juniors who are potential 2010 draft prospects because the league has been locked in a multi-million dollar standoff with a Boston-area company that produces and disseminates digitized content of NCAA games for eight major conferences, league sources told SI.com.

According to those sources, XOS Technologies, based in Billerica, Mass., requested the NFL pay a rights fee between $20 million and $30 million for a multi-year commitment to electronically receive the coaches' tape content for itself and its 32 teams. That content -- which shows the entire alignment of both the offense and defense on each play, shot from the end zone -- was formerly supplied free of charge in video tape form by schools as a mutually beneficial consideration between the NFL and NCAA. That's changed now.

Contacted by SI.com on Friday, XOS chief executive officer Randy Eccker said his company made the rights fee request to the NFL in August on behalf of the conferences it represents, and that XOS is no longer involved in the discussions between the league and the eight conference commissioners. NFL officials reached by SI.com declined comment.

XOS represents eight of college football's 11 major conferences -- a list that includes the SEC, Pac-10, Big 12, Mid-American, WAC and Sun Belt -- to produce the digitized coaches' tapes that are used for evaluation and scouting purposes. League sources say NFL officials continue to balk at paying anything for the game tapes. As a result, no NFL team's personnel and scouting departments have had access to any college action involving those conferences this season.

"It's a major, major problem for the NFL,'' said one club personnel executive. "The ramifications are deep. The 'juniors' committee may not exist this year as we know it. And that may mean even more juniors come out than we're already expecting. Here it is almost November, and nobody in the NFL has received a single game tape from all those schools in all those conferences. If there's no junior committee this year, the agents are going to tell their guys that they're all first-round picks, and kids want to believe that, so they will. We won't even have the ability to screen juniors and give them an opinion on their draft status.''

In addition to the college advisory committee's work, the league has traditionally used the coaches' tapes for its own scouting purposes and to determine which collegiate prospects should be invited to the league's annual pre-draft scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Discussions with XOS and college conference commissioners have been handled by longtime NFL competition committee members Bill Polian of the Colts and Rich McKay of the Falcons, as well as league executives Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive V.P./Football Operations, and Eric Grubman, executive V.P./NFL Ventures and Business Operations.

Eccker disputes that his company is keeping the coaches' tape content from the NFL, saying, "Nobody's trying to withhold content from the NFL. The conference commissioners and the NFL are in direct discussion on how to work this out in an amicable way. And we're no longer involved in those discussions. The conferences would like some fair market value for their content and some assurances that their content is going to be protected from a rights standpoint.''

But league sources portray the situation very differently, saying XOS has overpromised to the conferences the potential monetary value of their coaches' tapes. And while the league maintains XOS and the conferences have the right to monetize the coaches' tape content for commercial purposes, such as licensing those rights to tv networks like ESPN or websites like NFL.com, it is said to be bristling at paying for access to content it has gotten in the past in exchange for providing its scouting and evaluation services to colleges. Those evaluations, league sources say, benefit both the colleges and players, in that they help keep those prospects who are not ready for the NFL in school.

In addition, there are said to be fairly significant ancillary costs and expenditures of time involved for the NFL to operate its college advisory committee. Those costs have always been absorbed by the NFL as part of its reciprocal agreement with college teams.

The NFL's analysis of underclassmen is critical this year because some analysts are projecting a record number of juniors might come out in case looming labor issues result in a more restrictive rookie salary structure starting in 2011. Those players can petition the NFL's juniors committee for an assessment of where they project in the draft, thereby making what is hoped to be a more informed decision.

The league's college advisory committee is comprised of the general managers and personnel directors of most NFL clubs, as well the directors of the league's two scouting combines: BLESTO and The National. All 32 teams participate in the committee's player evaluations, and last year, some 150 to 200 juniors applied for evaluation, league sources said. The college advisory committee issued more than 1,000 written evaluations (a minimum of six per player) of those prospects in 2008. That can't be done in the current situation.

"We're tape-less now in the NFL, and XOS makes equipment where games can be digitized and sent electronically,'' the club personnel executive said. "They've partnered with various conferences, supplied them with their equipment and also supplied the NFL with the same equipment. So they convinced us to go digital, and now they're saying if you don't pay us this, you don't get our [video].

"And if you don't have [the video], it becomes very problematic for some teams to scout. If you have a general manager who doesn't travel to scout, he can't see the players because he doesn't have the [video].''

League sources say at least 24 NFL teams have purchased XOS equipment to go digital with their scouting of game tapes. The NFL is convinced that XOS sold its software, hardware and services to various conferences while claiming that their digitized game tapes would produce millions of dollars of new revenue for schools.

"XOS convinced the A.D.'s that these tapes were worth something, and I almost think we [the NFL] are partially to blame,'' the club personnel executive said. "Because when you see these NFL coaches' tapes on The NFL Network and ESPN, they're not being used just for scouting, they're being used for entertainment too. And that probably gave them the idea that they have value.

"The A.D.'s see those tapes now as cash cows. Some of those A.D.'s have revenue bonuses in their contracts. When they bring in extra revenue, they get a bonus for that.''

At issue, at least in the eyes of the NFL, is the question of who owns the rights to collegiate game tapes? One league source said some college teams believe they own the rights, while the conferences in most cases maintain that they do.

Some conferences have been insistent the NFL should pay for the content, league sources said, to the point where some school officials this season have even blocked NFL scouts from coming on campus to view the coaching tapes at their athletic offices, a courtesy customarily extended. Select collegiate football coaches are said to have pushed back against that move when they were alerted to it by NFL scouts and personnel men.

XOS is one of two companies that handles the digitalization of game tapes in the NCAA. The other is DVSport, which is affiliated with the Big East Conference. But if a Big East team plays a team from a conference contractually affiliated with XOS, say, Ohio State of the Big Ten, XOS could sue the NFL if any game tape finds its way to a team or the league.

Normally the coaches' game tapes start arriving in NFL offices two weeks or so into the regular season, league sources said. But the league knew it had a burgeoning issue with XOS when the company made the rights fee request in August. Barring some agreement, league source say the NFL's scouting process might revert to more old-fashioned practices such as on-site scouting, or even evaluation via the more limiting vantage points of games recorded off television.

"This thing has been going south for a while,'' the club personnel executive said. "They're trying to charge the NFL an egregious amount of money for their tapes, and there's never been a rights fee before. It's a huge deal within the league.''

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