Mr. Touchdown For NFL TV Deals

If you want to beat the other team, what better way than to put someone in charge who knows their plays? No surprise, then, that when National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was looking for an executive to renegotiate the league's TV contracts and expand its media presence, he drafted former ESPN (DIS ) President Steve Bornstein.

A 22-year veteran of ESPN and ABC (DIS ), Bornstein knew every network exec's head fakes and stutter steps. The payoff has been tremendous for the NFL at the bargaining table as well as with the launch of its own cable channel, the NFL Network. Since his arrival at the league in late 2002, Bornstein, 53, has negotiated $24 billion worth of new rights contracts -- resulting in a 53% hike over earlier deals. "He's a great auctioneer," says Stephen B. Burke, president of cable operator Comcast. "The NFL has tremendous value. He gives it more."

The Bornstein process isn't always pretty. To be sure, the tough-talking New Jersey native who learned to use sharp elbows to get his shot as a sports cameraman while at the University of Wisconsin, plays hard. He dangles games before competitors and applies pressure like a blitzing strong safety.

Both CBS (CBS ) and Fox (NWS ) agreed to hefty increases last year after Bornstein began talking to NBC, which had dropped broadcasting football but got back in this spring. And heading into talks with his old employer, he knew how much ESPN needed football. If it lost the NFL, the network would have had to pay a 35 cents monthly fee per subscriber back to cable operators, or about $370 million annually. The result: ESPN offered $8.8 billion for a new Monday night package.

What's more, Bornstein is building up the potential competition against his successor, ESPN President George Bodenheimer. He oversees the NFL Network, a cable channel the league launched two years ago. It is seen in 35 million homes, which is still less than half of all cable and satellite households. "He brought a perspective we didn't have," says NFL Executive Vice-President Roger Goodell. The NFL's channel doesn't air regular season games yet, but its shows, like NFL Total Access, have that ESPN feel.

What's more, the NFL Network is a strategic asset. The NFL can simply threaten to put its own games on its own channel if it is not getting high enough offers from others. It's also a great way to boost distribution. Satellite operator DirecTV Group (DTV ), for instance, agreed to distribute the channel to help it negotiate its new $700 million-a-year deal for the Sunday Ticket telecasts.

Bornstein, who lives in the former Fred Astaire mansion in Beverly Hills, shuttles between the NFL's West Coast offices and its Park Avenue digs in New York. "He's still got the entrepreneurial spirit that ESPN had in the '80s and '90s," says NASCAR Vice-President Dick Glover, who worked with Bornstein in the 1990s. Bornstein earned a reputation as a no-nonsense taskmaster who would shoot down underlings by pointing to a "bull-****" meter on a blackboard.

His ability to make ESPN into a money spinner earned Bornstein a ticket upward at parent Walt Disney Co., but his thankless task was to turn around ABC and jump-start Disney's woeful "I told him not to take the Internet job, but he really didn't have a choice," says former Cap Cities Chairman Thomas S. Murphy, a Disney board member. "Michael [Eisner] wanted him to do it." But after CEO Eisner picked Robert A. Iger as Disney president, Bornstein resigned.

Within months he had joined the NFL. "It was fun getting back to my roots, starting a cable channel," says Bornstein. Spoken like a guy who's back in the lineup.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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