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Covington & Burling’s decades-old relationship with the National Football League has now entered the Internet Age. Client and counsel first teamed up in 1960, when then-commissioner Pete Rozelle called on the Washington, D.C., firm to defend the league against an antitrust action threatened by the American Football League. The firm went on to represent the NFL in its subsequent merger with the AFL and in a wide variety of matters since. And a handful of Covington lawyers have gone to work for the league, including current commissioner Paul Tagliabue (a 20-year Covington veteran). Now the firm has helped the league score the biggest sports league Internet deal yet, with SportsLine.com Inc., America Online Inc., and CBS Television Network. The key feature of the agreement allows SportsLine.com to produce the league’s official Web site, NFL.com, and grants a limited amount of video rights. The league will take in an estimated $110 million in cash and at least $200 million in noncash value over the next five years. While the deal was a success, it wasn’t an easy march to the end zone. The NFL’s previous Internet deal, a three-year pact with ESPN.com, expired in April. Negotiations between the league and SportsLine.com and its allies began in March but intensified as spring slid into summer. Timing had become an issue: Training camp, which was to begin in late July, was approaching fast. “There was some significant pressure to put a deal together or not before the season started,” says Covington partner Bruce Wilson. “When we got into June, every day mattered.” The complexity of a multifaceted deal involving four parties and covering many areas of the law regularly pushed negotiations into the wee hours of the morning, Wilson says. “When one piece of the puzzle moved, it tended to move another,” he explains. “Each negotiation tended to spawn another.” Covington associate Srinivasan “Sandy” Soundararajan says that the negotiations had “the ebb and flow of an M&A deal.” There was a feeling that the deal could collapse at any moment, Soundararajan explains, opening the door for someone else to make an offer. There was competition even up until June, Wilson says, but he declines to name the rivals. If a deal hadn’t happened in time, the league would have been forced to produce NFL.com in-house and wait until the next season to sign a more comprehensive deal. The time pressure was evident the day after the deal was inked, when SportsLine.com immediately began powering the league’s Web site. But all of that pressure didn’t stop Covington lawyers from appreciating the field they were playing on. As they walked through the lobby of the NFL’s Manhattan offices, they stopped to view a few pieces of gridiron history: Tom Landry’s fedora, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s cleats, Franco Harris’s helmet, the Super Bowl trophy. “It gives you a great context for what you’re dealing with,” says Wilson. Considering the deal’s outcome, perhaps it also gives you a winning touch.

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