Last Thursday night, 48 hours after the NFL and four TV networks
had finalized deals that shook the sports and media worlds, some
expensive dominoes started to fall to the benefit of Cincinnati
Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. He was puttering around his
Manhasset, N.Y., house, preparing to attend a fund-raiser in
Manhattan with his wife, Cheryl, when the phone rang. CBS Sports
president Sean McManus was calling to ask him to work for CBS on
its NFL studio show or as its lead game analyst.
Intrigued, Esiason called one of his agents, Fred Fried, who
reported another development: ABC had just called him to offer
Esiason a seat in its Monday Night Football booth. "They're in a
hurry," Fried told him. "They want an answer." However, by
leading the Bengals to four victories in their last five games,
Esiason had won the starting quarterback job and been promised a
new contract by Cincinnati. So another Esiason agent, Jerrold
Colton, contacted Bengals president Mike Brown to get his best
A night of dizzying cell-phone negotiations left Esiason with
three eye-opening options, not bad for a man who only two months
earlier had been a backup quarterback on a 3-8 team.
Cincinnati was prepared to offer the 36-year-old Esiason a
two-year contract worth $8 million. Although contract terms
weren't nailed down, CBS certainly would have paid Esiason
millions and likely would have allowed him to pick whichever one
of its two jobs he wanted, and there was the possibility he
would also become the sports anchor for the network's flagship
station, WCBS in New York City. ABC would kick Frank Gifford out
of the booth and slide Esiason between Al Michaels and Dan
Dierdorf for about $7.5 million over five years. One of the
NFL's hottest passers last December (quarterback rating: 105.0)
agonized. Twenty hours after it all began, it was official; he
was going to ABC.
January 26, 1998
"It all happened so fast," Esiason said last Saturday, while
relaxing with his son, Gunnar, during NHL All-Star Game
festivities in Vancouver. "I was a little frustrated with the
Bengals, because if Mike had made a preemptive strike or really
recruited me, I'd have stayed because I still wanted to play.
But this Monday Night Football job might never come open again,
and I'm introduced to 20 million people without my helmet. The
NFL's new network contracts sent things into orbit."
The shock waves were felt leaguewide. The current four-year TV
deals, which expire after the Pro Bowl on Feb. 1, paid a total
of $1.1 billion annually. The new eight-year pacts are worth
$2.2 billion a year through 2005, and the league (but not the
networks) can reopen negotiations after five years. The salary
cap went up $700,000 per team last season; it should rise no
less than $7 million in 1998, to about $49 million.
Predictably, pedestrian players began to strike gold
immediately. Last Thursday, New England Patriots offensive
lineman Max Lane--best known for getting thrown around by Reggie
White in last year's Super Bowl--re-upped for $11 million over
five years. A four-year veteran, Lane made less than $200,000 in
"I don't think the players understand yet how big the
ramifications are," says free-agent cornerback Ryan McNeil, who
played this season for the St. Louis Rams. "Last year there
wasn't much money to sign free agents, but there's money this
year. Even the teams in trouble with the cap will find a way to
As is the case with every new TV contract windfall, there are
ways NFL spending will be influenced, except this time the
increases in salaries figure to be stunningly higher than ever
The star system will become more pronounced. Whenever the NFL
has experienced a cash influx, salaries for the high-end players
have risen more dramatically than those for roster
bottom-feeders. Even though the minimum salary for fifth-year
players is expected to increase from $275,000 to $400,000, star
quarterbacks will soon be $10 million men. "Now NFL stars will
be paid more like NBA players," says agent Hadley Engelhard, who
represents one of the top free-agents-to-be, Packers running
back Dorsey Levens.
The bidding wars for the best free agents will be more heated.
"How many difference-makers are there in this market?" asks
Brown. "Thirty? I doubt that many. That means there's fewer than
one per team. So you see where the competition could be."
McNeil is a perfect example of a free agent who will benefit
most from the timing of the network contracts. An above-average
corner in four seasons with the Detroit Lions, he spurned a
three-year, $6 million offer from the Bengals as a free agent in
1997 to sign a one-year, $1.2 million deal with St. Louis.
Jackpot! After leading the NFL with nine interceptions this
year, he could be looking at a $4 million-a-year deal as a free
agent this off-season. "In the last few days, people have told
me I'm lucky," McNeil says, "but I put my career on the line and
backed it up with a good season. I knew I could make what I felt
was my real market value in 1998."
Other potential home run hitters who might change addresses in
the coming months: Levens, Minnesota Vikings tackle Todd
Steussie, Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Eric Swann and
Pittsburgh Steelers wideout Yancey Thigpen.
Smart teams will tie up their free agents before other clubs can
start bidding for them on Feb. 15 and also will negotiate
long-term deals with marquee players who can walk in 1999. The
Tampa Bay Buccaneers are already talking to defensive tackle
Warren Sapp, who has a year left on his four-year $4.4
million-a-year contract, about a $3 million-plus-a-year
extension. The Packers will surely try to extend the deal of
wideout Antonio Freeman, as will the Patriots with linebacker
Ted Johnson and the Jacksonville Jaguars with tackle Tony Boselli.
Big winners will get pillaged. When the Dallas Cowboys were at
their peak, important role players in their defense--not the
stars--like Russell Maryland, Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones
signed with other teams after Super Bowl wins for at least $2
million a year. Look for Packers defensive end Gabe Wilkins,
guard Aaron Taylor and wideout Robert Brooks to get big offers
from other clubs; Green Bay's two most valuable free agents,
Levens and cornerback Doug Evans, will each cost the Packers at
least $3 million a year if they want to keep them.
Cash-rich teams will push up the salary structure for everyone.
The San Francisco 49ers ($63 million committed to 1998
contracts), the Oakland Raiders ($62 million) and the Cowboys
($61 million) have some serious gerrymandering to do to fit
under the '98 cap. But look at a team like the Philadelphia
Eagles, who have gaping holes everywhere and, with only $22
million committed to the '98 cap, lots of room to maneuver. If
the Eagles choose, they can address their three most glaring
weaknesses by signing the high-priced Steussie, Swann and
Thigpen. With money to burn, clubs with a cap advantage could
drive the bidding for some players through the roof.
In the hours after the TV contracts were finalized, Tennessee
Oilers general manager Floyd Reese said, "I'd like to think this
will add some stability to the league." Here's hoping $17.6
billion can do the job.