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Canada's biggest networks have yet to reveal their fall television schedules, but the ratings war has already been ratcheted up after CTV and Rogers grabbed the rights to National Football League games away from rival CanWest Global Communications Corp.

After several weeks of negotiations, CTVglobemedia Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc. announced yesterday they had won the NFL rights for Canada and would split the league's Sunday and playoff schedules for the next three years. According to sources, CTV and Rogers will pay between $10-million and $15-million per season.

CTV will broadcast the early games while Rogers has secured the late afternoon matchup on its Sportsnet and OMNI cable channels. The Super Bowl, which is among the biggest draws on Canadian television, will be shown on CTV after 25 years on Global.

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"It's been 25 years and it's like a divorce almost. You don't leave your partner of 25 years very easily. It was a very tough call for us," said Charles White, vice-president of international media for the NFL.

Mr. White said the deciding factor in CTV's favour was that its TSN affiliate already airs the NFL's Monday Night Football games, as well as some of the Sunday night schedule.

The new agreement comes as CanWest and CTV are in Los Angeles bidding on the top new U.S. shows to fill out their upcoming season schedules.

Industry observers suggested the deal is part of an escalating battle in the industry that saw the networks spend record amounts on U.S. programming last year.

However, Mr. White said "money was not the determining factor."

In addition to the CTV-TSN synergy, the NFL had other concerns, including the rebranding of CanWest's secondary CH network under the entertainment banner E! Some NFL games had been carried on CH.

"At first blush, it doesn't strike you as the best fit. We did think about that," Mr. White said, although he stressed the rebranding wasn't the determining factor. The NFL also was concerned that Global missed part of some playoff broadcasts last year because of the insertion of commercials.

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CTV president Rick Brace said his network was approached "a few weeks ago" by the NFL about its interest in bidding for the contract. CTV had concerns about the late afternoon game, as it would potentially disrupt its Sunday evening schedule. The league told CTV it already had an interested bidder for the late games, which CTV assumed was Rogers, and could parcel out the early afternoon game.

CTVglobemedia, which owns CTV and The Globe and Mail, teamed up with Rogers to outbid CBC for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics two years ago. However, executives at CTV said they negotiated the NFL deal separately from Rogers.

In a statement, Canwest said it wanted to keep the NFL rights, but indicated the price may have become too rich to justify. "The business reality presented wasn't one that we deemed economically sound in the long term for our networks, or our advertising partners," said Barbara Williams, CanWest's senior vice-president of programming and production.

Sportsnet president Doug Beeforth said his network already carries plenty of football, baseball and basketball games, but wanted more football. "Football was the one piece of the pro North American sports menu that we really hadn't had the opportunity to get involved in. So that's why this was so important to us."

While a typical Sunday NFL game drew 300,000 to 500,000 viewers on Global, the big prize is the Super Bowl, which drew 3.4 million viewers in English Canada in February. Ad rates for the Super Bowl are higher because advertisers pay a premium to be in a program where viewers have been trained to watch the ads. A 30-second commercial in the most recent Super Bowl broadcast cost just under $100,000, and at about $65,000 for the Grey Cup.

"What it gives us, especially in the playoffs and the Super Bowl, is among the highest-profile sports properties that's available out there," Mr. Brace said. The move comes a few months after CBC locked up a six year-agreement for the rights to Hockey Night in Canada, which CTVglobemedia was said to be coveting. The public broadcaster paid an estimated $100-million per season.

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"I guess they had some money left over because they didn't win the Hockey Night in Canada rights, CBC ended up keeping that," said Carl Bayard, an analyst with Desjardins Securities in Montreal.

***

CANWEST GLOBAL

Close: $10.12, down 22 cents

ROGERS COMMUNICATIONS

Close: $44.40, up 16 cents

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***

Viewership for the big games

2007 SUPER BOWL

Global (English): 3.4 million

RDS (French): 816,000

Total: 4.2 million

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2006 GREY CUP

CBC (English): 3.2 million

RDS (French): 810,000

Total: 4 million

2006 STANLEY CUP

Final: Game 7

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CBC (English): 4.7 million

RDS (French): 961,000

Total: 5.7 million

2002 OLYMPIC MEN'S HOCKEY: GOLD MEDAL GAME

CBC (English): 8.7 million

Radio-Canada TV (French): 1.6 million

Total: 10.3 million

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