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DirecTV sees NFL deal closing in 2014, AT&T soon after

CEO Mike White expects the satellite provider to seal a clutch deal to renew its popular NFL Sunday Ticket package in 2014, with its $48.5 billion merger with AT&T closing soon next year.

DirecTV's Sunday Ticket package is key to closing its acquisition by AT&T. Screenshot by Joan E. Solsman/CNET

NEW YORK -- Like dominos DirecTV set up just to knock over one after the other, the satellite provider expects a key deal with the NFL closing this year and another with AT&T closing soon thereafter.

Chairman and Chief Executive Mike White said he's "highly confident" that the satellite provider will secure an agreement for its popular Sunday Ticket package of NFL game broadcasts before the end of the year. Following that, he expects the proposed $48.5 billion merger deal with AT&T to close at the end of the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2015, he said, speaking at a Goldman Sachs media investors conference Friday.

That merger, which would allow AT&T to pair its own wireless network with DirecTV's satellite TV service, has the potential to shake up the pay-TV industry, just as the two biggest cable companies in the country -- Comcast and Time Warner Cable -- are slated to combine as well. That could mean more bundles of services in more areas of the country, but consumer advocates worry it could also open the door to higher prices as competition narrows.

DirecTV's deal with the NFL for a Sunday Ticket package is so vital to its service that AT&T's merger with the company could be scuttled if it falls through. AT&T included an option to walk away from the DirecTV deal if the satellite provider fails to renew the exclusive NFL agreement.

The Sunday Ticket package allows subscribers to catch every out-of-market football game on Sunday. It's a key driver of DirecTV's subscriber growth and retention and also appeals to AT&T's ambitions for its U-Verse television offering and a national video service to bundle with broadband and wireless offerings.

The agreement to merge with AT&T, reached in May and expected to close within 12 months, could mean more consumers getting access to AT&T's TV service, which is currently limited to the parts of the country that the company has a wireline infrastructure. It also raises the possibility of service bundles that include wireless voice and data services.

In late August, DirecTV was close to a deal with the NFL for a Sunday Ticket package that would increase its average annual rights fee to between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion over the next decade, according to a report by Sports Business Journal.