ESPN, Fox Have New Games to Play as NFL Season Opens

Analysis: New contract talks with the NFL are several seasons away, but league officials are monitoring TV relationships now

Eagles Panthers Thursday Night Football
Jacob Kupferman/CSM/REX/Shutters

When “Monday Night Football” debuts on ESPN on this evening, fans may do a double-take after they see what executives at the network refer to as “The Boogermobile.”

That’s an elevated chair set up on the line of scrimmage and pulled back and forth along the sidelines by a cart. Booger McFarland, the former NFL defensive tackle, will sit atop the contraption, interacting with an all-new team of announcers and analysts.  It’s supposed to give him a unique view of the sidelines that he can then share with viewers of the Disney-owned cable network. “Yes, there’s a seatbelt,” says McFarland, during a recent talk with reporters. “I’m asking for another one.”

A lot of people will want to buckle up this year when it comes to broadcasting NFL games.

It’s no secret that even NFL broadcasts – far and away the most-watched thing on television – have become as vulnerable to viewership and technology trends as original airings of “The Blacklist,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “NCIS.” Simply put, modern couch potatoes know they can roll over to any other screen they like and keep tabs on their favorite programming – even a sports match. The NFL is making things even easier this year by allowing unauthenticated streaming of games via its own app or with Yahoo Sports.

As those viewers migrate to new venues, however, NFL ratings on TV are shrinking. Viewership for NFL broadcasts fell 9% in 2017 and 8% in 2016. Last Thursday’s season-opener broadcast on NBC was off 8%. And then there’s the new set of challenges the NFL is juggling. It keeps making more games available throughout the weeks while spreading official telecasts to digital venues. Nike’s recent ad starring Colin Kaepernick has only inflamed the controversy around kneeling during the national anthem. And there’s still the issue of long-term injuries to players that can cause brain damage.

No one has more to worry about than ESPN and Fox. One is trying to repair a relationship with the NFL through “Monday Night Football,” and the other hopes to expand its ties to the league with broadcasts of the games on Thursday nights.

“Fox recently inked a new 5-year, $3.3 billion dollar deal for Thursday night games and now needs to justify that price tag, particularly when previous holders of those rights were reluctant to compete at that level,” explains Jennifer O’Sullivan, an attorney who specializes in sports for New York’s Arent Fox. Meanwhile, ESPN “has been plagued with a declining subscriber base while it struggles with justifying an equally exorbitant price tag for ‘Monday Night Football.’”

Neither network takes its responsibilities lightly. “This is a property that hasn’t reached its true potential,” says Mark Silverman, president of national networks for 21st Century Fox’s Fox Sports, of “Thursday Night Football,” in an interview. He may be buoyed by recent projections from media buyers indicating that “Thursday Night Football” may notch better commercial ratings this season than it did in 2017.  ESPN has been working on a better presentation for Monday nights as part of a broader effort to repair what even its top executive acknowledges has become a fractured relationship with the league. “I’ve spent a lot of time with league executives” in recent months, says Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, during recent remarks to reporters. “There is definitely positive momentum.”

Fox has a unique opportunity to burnish “TNF.” For the past two seasons, the games have been split between CBS and NBC. In 2018, Fox gets 11 games straight (they are simulcast on the NFL Network), and expects that difference to give the network a better chance to market the Thursday broadcast, says Silverman. A new pre-game show featuring Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long and Michael Strahan from New York City  – not the usual Fox setting in Los Angeles – helps the network establish better ties to the east coast, says Silverman, and “interact with a completely new viewership base.”

Viewers will see Fox introduce new production ideas, says Silverman, including new audio elements and some other new presentation concepts it may unveil at different points in the season.

ESPN thinks Monday nights are primed for a resurgence. After suffering from a lackluster schedule in recent seasons, ESPN’s Pitaro feels the 2018 lineup is of better quality, along with the night’s new on-air team. “I was very much a part of this process, in terms of looking at the tapes during the audition process,” he says. A new assemblage of Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, McFarland and Lisa Salters has “great chemistry.”

One person who will likely be watching both broadcasts is Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief business and media officer.  The NFL is eager to develop “Thursday Night Football” into a franchise that approaches what it has on Sunday night with NBC, Rolapp says in a recent interview. “I don’t know if we are there yet, but with the progress we have made, we are clearly excited about it.” ESPN has “more hours of our programming than any other network,” he notes, and a good relationship buoys both parties. “I’m a big believer in Jimmy Pitaro,” says Rolapp. ESPN’s team is “focused on the NFL, and we love that they want to deliver value.”

But both networks are pushing to succeed in an era when the NFL makes it significantly harder to do so. “They have diluted inventory. There’s more than what was available in a given week and that has made the Monday-night game no longer as unique,” says Charles Coplin, an independent producer who is a former head of programming for NFL Network. And Fox “is promising they are going to do special things around Thursday Night Football,” but runs the risk of stretching its on-air talent, he says, like having Joe Buck call Thursday nights as well as Sundays while also doing post-season baseball. “That’s a lot.”

Why are both ESPN and Fox jumping so high for the NFL? It may serve them well in the long run. ESPN’s rights deal with the NFL expires in 2021, while Fox’s Sunday NFL broadcast rights end in 2022. Boosting either of the weekday broadcasts would give each network new leverage in what are sure to be high-pressure negotiations to keep the games on their schedule.

Even with a few seasons to go before those talks start in earnest, no one can afford a misstep. By the tine the haggling begins, digital-media players are sure to be competing for some of those contracts. Booger McFarland better make sure his restraints are tight.