NFL's experimental option play offers TV viewers more openings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here are the eight most unlikely words you may ever read in this space: Someone at the NFL finally got it right.

It will finally be possible for fans in NFL cities, like Baltimore, to see three games on a Sunday when the local team is playing at home, thanks to a vote by the league's Broadcast Committee, of which Ravens owner Art Modell is a member.

Don't break out the champagne yet, for it's apparently only a one-year experiment, but one suspects that if the new Extreme Football League (XFL) does moderately well next winter, this change will become a permanent thing.

Before this experiment, the NFL's rules, which permit a market to see three games during the Sunday afternoon window, knocked out one of those games if the local team was playing at home, regardless of whether the local game was on.

That would have meant, for instance, that on Oct. 29, when the Ravens play at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1 p.m., during a week when CBS has the doubleheader, the network couldn't show a 4 p.m. game here, but Fox could.

For this season, provided the Ravens' game sells out 72 hours before kickoff, as the one against the Steelers has, local viewers can have their pick of watching either the Jacksonville Jaguars-Dallas Cowboys game on Channel 13 or one of three NFC games that will air on Channel 45. The additional game cannot air at the same time as the home team's game.

It's a clear victory for football viewers and for CBS and Fox, which should see an uptick in their ratings, which, in turn, should make their contracts with the league even more valuable.

Now, if the league would just get rid of or modify the silly blackout rule, everybody will be happy. But, when it comes to dealing with the NFL, one should savor the wins, however hard-fought they are.

In what appears to be an attempt to get the jump on the XFL, the NFL also announced that it will allow umpires to wear lightweight cameras on the bill of their caps during exhibition games, as well as permitting the networks to interview a head coach and a player at halftime of nationally televised exhibition games.

By the way, the Ravens continually cite the fact, as they did last Sunday in a letter to the editor of these pages, that their games draw the largest audience of any televised sporting events in the area, and that's true, in an apples to oranges sort of way.

But, compared with what other football teams draw in other cities, their "dominance" of the local television market is minimal, and no amount of spin will change that.

Getting his due

Tonight's ESPN Classic documentary on Frank Robinson as a part of its new "SportsCentury" series could be seen as a kind of a makeup to the great former Orioles outfielder that he didn't make last year's ballyhooed list of the top 100 athletes of the 20th century.

After all, one would have a hard time believing that someone like Robinson, the fourth all-time leading home run hitter, the next-to-last man to grab the Triple Crown and the only man to be named both Most Valuable Player and Manager of the Year in both leagues, wasn't one of the top 100 athletes of any century.

Toward the end of the hour, Robinson poignantly talks about the slights he has encountered, but the best moments come from Jeff Torborg, who succeeded Robinson as manager of the Cleveland Indians, and grippingly talks about Robinson's fierce nature and his willingness to help the man who replaced him after he was fired.

Be sure to set the VCR for tonight's broadcast, which airs at 8. It's a keeper.

Sins of the crawl

Our crawl-happy friends at Channel 13 gave us an unexpected bit of comedy Tuesday night, in the midst of the 19-1 laughfest the Yankees laid on the Orioles.

During the game, WJZ, which has developed the annoying habit of running a crawl across the screen when the next day's forecast calls for daylight, ran one advising viewers that they could catch the "compelling conclusion" of the miniseries "Night Sins," which began Sunday.

Beyond the notion that very little that star Valerie Bertinelli has done in her career could be called "compelling," the miniseries in question was 3 years old and had already run at least once on CBS.

We've said it here before, and we'll say it again: Local stations should skip the crawls unless they're absolutely necessary.

The booth view

That was a mighty interesting little fandango staged earlier this week between Fox and Pat Summerall, with the network saying he was retiring after next season, and Summerall saying, "Don't put me in a rocking chair just yet."

Only a handful of people really know what happened between the first whispers Sunday and the surreal phone conference Monday, but this much is clear: Fox should count its blessings that Summerall might be amenable to staying.

Summerall is probably the best play-by-play voice to work football, and if his knee replacement surgery reinvigorates him, he and partner John Madden will become superb again.

Moreover, Madden and Summerall, who will begin their 20th season together this September, have a sense of permanence that no other team can boast, particularly in football. There's something to be said for a team with staying power, and Summerall and Madden are that, and then some.

Around the dial

As you watch tonight's Ravens-Redskins scrimmage (Channel 24, 7:30) - and you will - one of two thoughts may occur to you. One is, "I can't believe I'm wasting valuable time watching two teams practice with each other." The second is, "Thank goodness, I don't have to pay for this." WJFK (1300 AM) will carry the proceedings as well.

Dennis Miller's initial foray into the "Monday Night Football" booth comes with the Hall of Fame Game on Monday between the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers (Channel 2, 7 p.m.) Be sure to count the arcane references. The actual Hall of Fame inductions come tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. on ESPN2.

You have to hand it to ESPN for realizing that a culture that would watch people ride skateboards and snowboards in the "X Games" might want to see people shoot at targets and cut things with chain saws and send their dogs scampering for prizes and money as in the "Great Outdoor Games." The telecasts of events that took place last week continue tonight on ESPN and ESPN2 and run through Aug. 6.

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