ESPN execs confident on NFL

High hopes even with lock out anticipated until fall

As the major networks tout their wares to advertisers this week, execs are valiantly expressing confidence that there will be action on the gridiron this fall despite the labor strife roiling the NFL.

The optimism from network brass is no surprise, as the absence of NFL games would throw up for grabs more than $3 billion in ad time sold annually by the outlets that share pro pigskin rights: CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN.

At its upfront presentation Tuesday, ESPN execs urged “Monday Night Football” advertisers not to count the season out.

“They’re going to play,” ESPN head of content John Skipper told the crowd at Gotham’s Best Buy Theater. “I don’t know when they are going to play, but eventually they will play, and we will show it on Monday nights.”

Skipper’s declaration comes even in the face of Monday’s appellate court ruling that allows NFL owners to keep locking out players through an appeals process that could stretch into the summer.

Unlike CBS and Fox, which show multiple pro games, ESPN broadcasts one game a week, prompting some ESPN execs to say privately that they’re less concerned, particularly since they have a slate of college football games that can attract similar advertisers.

Still, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, a guest at ESPN’s event, agreed with Skipper’s prediction, saying too much was at stake to not reach a settlement. “It will eventually get done,” Matthews told the audience.

Total fees from the various networks and DirecTV total roughly $4 billion, nearly half the annual league revenues that players and owners are fighting over.

The thrust of ESPN’s message to media buyers was the same approach NBC took in its upfront on Monday.

Although NBC is the net that would be hurt the most by the loss of football, from a ratings standpoint and because it is slated to carry next year’s Super Bowl, the new Peacock regime put on a brave face in briefly addressing the issue with media buyers. NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt would say only that NBC was anticipating its “Sunday Night Football” would “most likely” be delayed only a few weeks beyond its skedded Sept. 8 Thursday-night kickoff if the lockout continues.

NBC said it was developing a range of unscripted series and specials that could help fill the NFL gap on Sunday if need be. But there’s no denying that the revenue loss — and perhaps even more so, the loss of circulation to help promote their lineups — would be a tremendous blow for each of the NFL’s TV partners.

In the 2010-11 NFL season, Fox raked in a whopping $1.44 billion from NFL games, including the Super Bowl, according to advertising research firm Kantar Media. CBS pulled in $953 million, while NBC grabbed $644 million and ESPN nabbed $179 million, according to Kantar. The networks’ exposure is even higher when pre-and post-game shows are factored in, particularly NBC’s 75-minute “Football Night in America” telecast that precedes “Sunday Night Football.”

The terms of the TV deals have been part of the dispute between players and owners. Players went to court over a provision calling for the networks to pay the owners (in the form of loans) even if there are no games, dubbing that “lockout insurance.”

In other news from the ESPN upfront, the cabler said Dan Le Batard, a Miami Herald sportswriter and a frequent guest on the network’s “Pardon the Interruption,” will be getting his own gig called “Highly Questionable.” The 30-minute show will air weekdays at 4 p.m. on ESPN2. In addition, the net is seizing on the frenzy over fantasy sports, launching the show “Numbers Don’t Lie,” which will precede Le Batard’s program on ESPN. It will cover the big sports stories of the day but from a numerical perspective. No host has been named yet.

And in what serves as new ad model for live sports, ESPN is launching NASCAR Non Stop, in which ads will be shown on split screen so viewers don’t miss any of the action during the second half of races.

On the digital front, Skipper said he is excited about the launch of Grantland, a website started by ESPN columnist Bill Simmons. An homage to legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, the site will feature longform stories from such writers as Dave Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman. It’s set to launch in early June.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)