By Ronald Grover and Liana B. Baker
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) - The National Football League is studying whether to auction the media rights for a new slate of regular-season games, a process that has ignited fierce bidding wars in the past for a deal to broadcast the hugely popular sport.
Discussions are internal and at an early stage, and there is no assurance a decision will be made to do so, said Steve Bornstein, president and CEO of NFL Network and NFL executive vice president of media.
Even if the league decides to offer a package of Thursday night games, Bornstein stressed, the NFL intends to reserve some live games for its own NFL Network. The cable channel, which is carried in more than 72 million homes, currently broadcasts 13 regular-season games every Thursday.
"There is no way that this channel won't have live games," Bornstein said. "It's great content, and gives us an amazing platform to expand into other areas."
Live games have helped build NFL Network, which premiered in 2003 with 11.5 million subscribers. It began showing eight live games per season in 2006, and expanded its offerings to 13 games a season in 2012.
The channel's schedule also provides all-year programming, including coverage of the league's annual draft of college players and the nightly "NFL Total Access" news and interview program.
NFL Network charges operators an average monthly fee of $1.13 per subscriber, according to media analysis firm SNL Kagan, an increase from the 40-cent monthly fee when it first began airing games in 2006. This year, it is also projected it will sell an estimated $236.7 million in ads.
The channel is expected to generate nearly $1.2 billion in overall revenue in 2013, according to SNL Kagan. Major advertisers on the network include Yum Brands' KFC and Pizza Hut, Sears and Volkswagen.
Interested bidders for a new package of games could include the TBS or TNT channels, both operated by Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System unit, or sports channels such as Fox Sports 1, said sports consultant Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp. Ganis also figures online video providers such as Google's YouTube site may bid.
"NFL rights are unique in that people seek out the games on whatever channel they're on, and don't have to be spoon-fed promotions as they are with other entertainment or sports programs," said Ganis, who helps negotiate TV sports deals. "The NFL can help make a channel much more successful."
Bornstein acknowledged that the league has heard from potential bidders for a possible new package of games, but would not name them.
The NFL executive, who plans to leave his job this spring, would not say how many games would be included in a possible package, but said the league is unlikely to allow two games to be played on a single Thursday night.
Ganis speculated that the league could divvy up the NFL Network's current slate of games, or add late-season games on Friday and Saturday nights.
Bornstein also would not discuss ongoing talks between the league and satellite operator DirecTV, whose contract, worth $1 billion annually, to show football games from the "NFL Sunday Ticket" product expires after next year's season.
The current DirecTV offer allows subscribers to watch football games outside of their local markets.
In the past few months, DirecTV executives have sounded upbeat about their chances to renew the contract.
(Reporting by Ronald Grover and Liana B. Baker; Edited by Edwin Chan and Maureen Bavdek)