Alphabet punting 'MNF' over to ESPN

NEW YORK — ABC is taking itself out of the primetime football game … while ESPN and NBC are gladly jumping in.

Alphabet is handing off the storied 36-year “Monday Night Football” franchise to its sister cable network ESPN, while NBC gets to televise the Sunday night matchup.

On the surface, NBC seems to have gotten the far better financial deal. Network will pay $600 million per year for a package that includes two Super Bowls, playoff games and the ability to cherry pick marquee games during the home stretch of the season.

Menawhile, ESPN/Disney will shell out a whopping $1.1 billion for Monday Night Football … no Super Bowl included.

Having earlier locked up six-year contract renewals with Fox and CBS for weekly Sunday-afternoon games, the NFL has now completed all of its ongoing deals, including out-of-market games every Sunday on DirecTV.

The most eye-popping dollar increase is the doubling of license fees for “Monday Night Football,” from the $550 million ABC will pay during the final year of the current deal to the $1.1 billion ESPN will pony up each year for an eight-year contract running through 2013.

“This is a stellar day for ESPN, and a milestone in the history of sports TV,” said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN, in a telephone conference call with reporters.

NBC touts flexible sked

For its part, NBC claimed the “Monday Night Football” franchise had effectively been moved to Sundays, because the web got four hours of primetime football and a flexible schedule that would allow NBC to chose better matchups for the last seven weeks of the season.

ESPN has no such flexibility on Monday night.

But the NBC flexibility goes only so far. CBS and Fox will still get the first two choices of NFL games for their Sunday-afternoon schedules, giving NBC, at best, only the third option.

“Sunday night is the only time there could be flexible scheduling because that’s when there are a selection of games,” said NBC Universal sports chairman Dick Ebersol.

NBC paid $600 million for the Sunday package, including Super Bowls in 2009 and 2012. Deal is part of a broad agreement with GE that will include marketing for health-care technology, security equipment, lighting and financial services.

“The GE deal is helpful, but this will be profitable from advertising alone,” NBC Universal chairman Bob Wright said.

ESPN will not get a Super Bowl despite its humongous increase because the network would face the wrath of Washington if the 15% of the population that doesn’t buy cable or satellite TV could not get the most highly visible, and highest-rated, television event of the year. “The NFL didn’t offer us a Super Bowl in this package,” said Bodenheimer.

Fat deal for NFL

When all of the contracts are added together, the NFL will pocket a cool $3.74 billion a year, beginning in 2006, which is 53% higher than the $2.24 billion the league harvested each year under the current deals.

And, as a separate package, the NFL is planning to carve out a series of eight primetime games post-Thanksgiving that would run on either Thursday or Saturday, with a cable network as the likely buyer.

Time Warner’s TNT is the most logical outlet; it has said publicly that it would like to buy the rights to some regular-season NFL games. The network is still smarting over losing its half of the Sunday-night NFL package that it shared with ESPN, which engineered a pre-emptive bid in 1997 that pushed TNT out of the TV picture. Other possible cable-network bidders for the Thursday/Saturday bundle are USA, FX and Spike TV.

ESPN’s 17 Monday-night games will get the earlier kickoff of 8:40 p.m. Eastern time, preceded by the “NFL Countdown” show, which will continue to start at 7 p.m., live, in the city where the game takes place. Bodenheimer said he expects that the ratings will be higher for ESPN on Monday than they were on Sunday, which would result in higher advertising rates to help offset the $1.1 billion ESPN license fee. (ESPN pays $600 million a year for the Sunday-night game.)

ESPN recently signed 10-year deals with cable operators that call for an average increase of only 7% a year. ESPN’s previous long-term cable and satellite deals built in an annual increase of 20%.

2 Super Bowls for NBC

NBC’s Sunday-night deal will cost the network the same price ESPN pays now. During the course of the six-year license term, NBC will get two Super Bowls; CBS and Fox each also get two Super Bowls in rotation during the six years beginning in 2006.

The Sunday night package calls for NBC to carry 16 Sunday night games, plus the Thursday night season opener, two playoff games on Wild Card Weekend, and three primetime preseason games.

Mark Shapiro, executive VP of programming and production for ESPN, said ABC “was never interested, and didn’t bid on” Sunday night football because it has developed big hits on Sunday in “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”

The shift of Monday Night Football from broadcast to cable will be a test of the reach and appeal of pay TV. ABC is taking a risk in letting it go, analysts said. From an advertising perspective, live sporting events are more likely to be watched live and thus less affected by ad-skipping technology like TiVo.

“What we know now is Disney will now have stronger competition on Sunday nights and several hours of programming to fill on Mondays,” said Richard Greenfield, analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners.

Affils had big burden

ABC’s local affiliates will no longer have to help pay for the NFL, the burden of which will be shifted to cable companies, and ultimately, cable subscribers.

“Losing ‘MNF’ was something the ABC affiliates anticipated,” said Bill Carroll, VP of Katz Television Group. “Luckily it was at a time when ABC is on a rollwith dramatic shows.”

NBC now has a package of NFL games around which to rebuild its lagging schedule.

One question that remains for NBC affiliates is how much they’ll be asked to pay for the package.

“Our initial discussions have been positive,” said Randy Falco, NBC television networks group prexy. “The affiliates are very excited about the news.”

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