Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable-television company, has lost the right to move the NFL Network from one of its most popular programming packages to a less widely distributed tier of sports channels, a new ruling shows.

A New York appeals court in Manhattan on Tuesday reversed a New York state judge's decision last year that rejected the National Football League's claim that Comcast's programming move violated a contractual agreement. The appeals panel ordered the lower court to reconsider the matter.

The lawsuit is part of a larger fight between the closely held NFL and cable companies over telecasting the network. Cable companies contend football fans who want the channel should pay extra for it. The NFL is pushing for wider distribution so it can increase ad and fee revenue from the operation.

The panel of appeals court judges reversed a May 2007 ruling by Supreme Court Justice Bernard Fried, who said Comcast "is free to distribute the NFL Network on a sports tier." The channel features games and other football-related programming.

The "court's holding that the agreements unambiguously permit Comcast to tier the NFL Network is reversed," the appeals court said.

The NFL filed the lawsuit in 2006 after Philadelphia-based Comcast notified the league that the channel would be moved from its digital package, which serves 12 million homes, to a sports programming tier that isn't distributed as widely.

The league wants its network carried on basic cable packages with channels such as ESPN or CNN, where it can be reached by the broadest possible audience.

The appeals court said that because there was a dispute and ambiguity about interpretations of relevant contracts, Fried should not have granted Comcast's motion for a verdict before a trial.

"We are pleased that the lower court decision was reversed," said Dan Masonson, a spokesman for the NFL, in an e-mailed statement. "We believe that today's decision ultimately will lead to the restoration of NFL Network service to the millions of fans who received it before the Network was moved to an expensive sports tier."

A spokesperson for Comcast couldn't immediately be reached for comment.