NFL football games have long commanded TV’s biggest audiences. But Walt Disney is experimenting with bringing its gridiron broadcasts to some smaller viewer niches.
Some of Disney’s biggest TV networks will “mega-cast” a January NFL Wild Card game across ESPN, ABC, Freeform, ESPN Deportes and ESPN2, part of a larger series of efforts the company has tried over the last year to woo different kinds of viewers to professional football. The company intends to offer four different presentations of the post-season game, slated to take place on January 9 or January 10. ESPN and ABC will both show a traditional telecast, while Freeform, best known for series such as “The Bold Type” and “Grown-ish,” will offer an experience tailored to a younger, female audience. The ESPN2 presentation will likely feature a concept the company has experimented with in the past that includes commentary that is more free-flowing and conversational.
Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Louis Riddick, Lisa Salters and John Parry — the “Monday Night Football” team — will call the game on ESPN and ABC. ESPN2 and Freeform will utilize other personnel.
Disney unveils the tactic as the company — and many of its rivals –are in the midst of critical negotiations with the National Football League over the renewal of rights to show football games. ESPN’s contract to show “Monday Night Football” lapses ahead of agreements the NFL has with its other broadcasters, Fox Corp., ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal. ESPN’s deal ends after the 2021 NFL season, and people familiar with the talks suggest Disney is working aggressively to secure a broader link with the league that could include getting ABC into the Super Bowl rotation, or even rights to the NFL’s Sunday or Thursday packages.
ESPN is believed to be spending around $1.9 billon a year for NFL rights — a figure most expect to swell under the terms of a new contract. The talks are likely to center on what the networks should get in exchange for rising fees, and how they can help the NFL reach new audiences amid a media landscape that is splintering around new types of viewing behaviors and technology.
Disney will “mega-cast” other football events as well. ABC will simulcast two “Monday Night Football” games in December. The “MNF” broadcast team will handle a traditional telecast across both outlets of a December 7 game that pits the Buffalo Bills against the San Francisco 49ers and a December 29 game that pits the Bills against the New England Patriots. The games will also stream on devices via digital properties tied to ESPN, ESPN Deportes, ABC and the NFL and on mobile via NFL and Verizon Media outlets. ESPN’s remaining “MNF” slate will also be streamed on the aforementioned outlets, except ABC.
The company has tested other efforts to bring the NFL to broader audiences. A 2019 broadcast of the NFL Draft on ESPN was paired with a separate, glitzier effort tailored for ABC that was hosted in part by Robin Roberts. Earlier this season, ESPN and ABC simulcast a “MNF” game while a range of popular sports figures — including Charles Barkley and Peyton Manning — weighed in via loose fashion on ESPN2.
Other media companies are testing similar concepts. ViacomCBS plans to create a special January 10 Wild Card telecast for kids on the company’s Nickelodeon cable network.
The interest in new presentations for the Wild Card games comes after the NFL and its teams earlier this year approved an expansion of the post-season that adds two Wild Card teams, one from the AFC and one from the NFC, to the playoffs, raising the number of teams involved to 14 from 12. NBC is also scheduled to telecast a Wild Card game on the same date, likely in the evening.