TELEVISION'S two fiercest rivals - the Seven and Nine networks - have discussed an unprecedented deal to share coverage of Australia's two biggest football codes.
Under the proposal, Nine would broadcast an AFL match in the southern states while Seven would show at least one NRL game live in New South Wales and Queensland.
The move, which would quash any hopes the Ten Network may have of gaining a ratings foothold in either code, comes amid manoeuvring for the upcoming broadcast rights which are expected to reap more than $1 billion for the NRL.
It is believed the Nine-Seven discussion about the potential sharing of AFL and NRL games was raised several months ago.
''It's definitely on the table,'' said a source close to the discussions. ''It's been discussed and there's a real chance it could happen.''
A Seven-Nine free-to-air trade would allow pay TV's Fox Sports the flexibility to simulcast all rugby league matches as it does at present with AFL matches, further adding value to any future rights package.
The chief executive of the NRL, David Gallop, said he was unaware of the Nine-Seven talks but was not surprised that such an unprecedented option was being considered.
''We're at a stage where there's no doubt there is a lot of talk going on behind the scenes,'' Gallop said.
''While not privy to all discussions it does underline the interest out there in all of our products.''
The NRL held initial talks with Ten and Seven last month after current rights holders Nine and Fox Sports submitted their first formal bids. A joint bid by both is expected in the next two months, and the NRL hopes to reach an agreement by September.
The Australian Rugby League Commission has joined forces with corporate advisers Greenhill Caliburn to negotiate the new rights package.
Industry analysts have valued the rugby league five-year package at $950 million, but league sources say they may consider extending any deal by another year to capitalise on the current market interest.
A key aspect of the negotiations will revolve around state-of-origin matches and the possibility of Fox Sports setting up a dedicated rugby league channel along the lines of its AFL version.
The NRL was buoyed last month by the record television audience for this year's first origin game, when an average nationwide audience of 2.51 million watched Queensland defeat NSW at Melbourne's Etihad Stadium.
Seven, Foxtel and Telstra paid a record $1.25 billion over five years for the AFL broadcast rights last year, a leap of more than $400 million on the previous deal and underscoring football's status as the nation's richest code.
While industry analysts believe Seven and its partners ultimately paid too much for the AFL package, the main free-to-air networks and Foxtel are content to view them as ''loss leaders'' and key audience drivers.
Ten, which walked away last year from extending its previous joint deal with Seven for the AFL rights, has signalled a strong interest in recent months in bidding for the NRL rights.