‘Monday Night Football’ Is More Than a Game for Disney in NFL Rights Scramble

Las Vegas, NV - September 21,
Al Powers / Courtesy of ESPN

In a crucial moment for any TV network that wants to stay in the business of broadcasting NFL football games, ESPN this evening is calling in some big guns.

Before kickoff on tonight’s “Monday Night Football,” the sports-media giant will feature an opening segment designed with help from colleagues at Disney sibling Marvel. The montage looks similar to the opening of one of the studio’s super-hero blockbusters. Viewers will hear narration from Samuel L. Jackson, the actor who plays Nick Fury and has enjoyed a continuing presence in Marvel’s popular films. They will see players from tonight’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens depicted as if they were superheroes from one of Marvel’s colorful comic books. And then they will hear “Heavy Action,” the theme that has been have been an audio hallmark of the program since its tenure on ABC.

Superheroes can only help.

Each “Monday Night Football’ broadcast this season takes place as the NFL and the TV networks that air its games are holding critical negotiations about rights contracts that, if they aren’t renewed, could determine nothing less than the fate of traditional TV itself. To be sure, networks make tweaks and improvements to regular programs all the time, but this season, any changes to gridiron TV take place under a new and intense spotlight.  “We are obviously interested in bringing the full power of the Walt Disney Company into the conversation we are having with the NFL,” says Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming, acquisitions, and scheduling, in an interview.

ESPN makes its case to the league as the network continues to rebuild its “MNF” on air team. For years, ESPN viewers knew they’d be greeted by Jon Gruden or Mike Tirico. The former left in 2018 to coach the Raiders, while Tirico decamped to NBC Sports in 2016. In their place, the network has tried Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland and Jason Witten, while not-so-quietly reaching out to eye-popping candidates like Peyton Manning (not interested at the moment) and Tony Romo (his salary requirements were too high for Disney).

“You have to have a group that has chemistry together. It’s a tall order,” particularly when new teams are critiqued instantly on social media when they are trying to find ways to gel, says Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s executive vice president of event and studio production, in an interview. “That’s our goal, and look, we have felt like we’ve progressed each year.”

The new  “MNF” team of  Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Louis Riddick (above, pictured) and veteran sideline reporter Lisa Salters is focused less on football rights and more on football games – even though they face challenges sparked by broadcasting live sports in the midst of global pandemic. “There are people who are in charge of these kinds of things, who will handle these things at Disney and at ESPN. That’s what they do,” says Riddick, the former NFL safety, in an interview on Saturday. “What we are in charge of is making sure we display a high quality of professionalism and talking about the game – informing people, educating people, entertaining people.”

ESPN faces more pressure than some of its rivals. Its rights contract with the NFL lapses after the 2021 season, while deals between the league and NBC, Fox and CBS end after 2022. There is speculation that the NFL and the networks could unveil new terms as soon as November. “The conversations are still at a relatively early stage, but are sort of moving along nicely,” Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch recently said during a  recent investor conference. “The NFL has asked all the broadcasters to think about every package and think about how would we monetize packages that we currently have, or other packages, differently.”

People familiar with parts of the negotiations expect Disney to be ambitious and aggressive. Some discussions have considered the idea of whether Disney might move a property like “Monday Night Football” to ABC and even gain a new chance to become part of the rotation of the Super Bowl broadcast already enjoyed by its competitors, according to two people familiar with some of the discussions. Some executives would not be surprised to see Disney even make a bid for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” according to one of these people.

“There is speculation coming from everyone but us,” says Magnus, who declined to comment on any of the scenarios.

Billions of dollars are at stake. The average cost of a 30-second ad on “Monday Night Football” last season came to nearly $277,605, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. 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 will no doubt involve back-and-forth over 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.

Every Monday night, Disney offers up a new statement about what it can do with a football property. Last week, ESPN put together a “mega-cast” for “MNF,”  with the game broadcast on ESPN and ABC while a bevy of popular guests like Charles Barkley and Peyton Manning held forth on ESPN2. “We sort of wanted it to feel like a Zoom pop-in,” says Druley. ”We have the bandwidth and platforms  to put up different types of broadcasts. You can really experiment and see what you like, what the fans like.”

Rivals are trying to show off as well. ViacomCBS intends to air an NFL broadcast later this season on Nickelodeon, in a bid to spark new interest in the sport from some of TV’s youngest audiences, and agreed to a massive $17 million per year contract to keep Tony Romo from going elsewhere. NBC has added new high-tech camera technology to “Sunday Night Football,” and is giving Tirico some temporary Sunday announcing duties to help Al Michaels cut back on travel in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

ESPN has had to do a lot in recent years to convince the NFL of its intentions. Executives freely acknowledge the network’s relationship with the league had deteriorated. The quality of “MNF” match-ups was not the best, and ESPN may have been distracted by the ratings performance of other leagues like the NBA. ESPN regularly creates new programs and formats for other leagues, too, but under Jimmy Pitaro, who was named ESPN’s president in 2018, the network has worked on a “resetting” with the NFL, says Magnus, and placed new emphasis on many aspects of how it showcases the league.

After being forced to share coverage of the NFL Draft with Fox in 2018 – an emotional blow to many longtime ESPN employees  – ESPN pushed back: Its 2019 broadcast of the event from Nashville involved a separate, glitzier production tailored for ABC. ESPN’s 2020 Draft, a massive virtual undertaking in pandemic-torn 2020, offered relief to fans whose sports were scuttled by coronavirus. The studio show “NFL Live” got a new lead host, Laura Rutledge, in 2020, along with a new analyst Mina Kimes. ESPN’s morning program, “Get Up,” has kept a steady NFL focus since a retooling of the program in its first year on air.

“The working relationship with the NFL is much better today than it was a couple of years ago,” says Magnus.  “We finally made the NFL the priority that they should have been, and we are doing fun things, doing creative things to reach different audiences and grow different audiences.”

TV executives know that in an era when more viewers are migrating to streaming-video favorites, a programming schedule without a robust NFL component is a doomsday scenario. “It really fuels conversations and content for us year-round, and so, yeah, it’s critically important,” says Magnus. “It’s central to our offering.”

The new “MNF”  trio isn’t coming in cold. Levy, who has been at ESPN for nearly three decades, and Griese, a former NFL quarterback, have called college games together. And the three worked on a “MNF” game last season. But they all acknowledge they have come together at an unusual time. Announcers and crew can’t hold meetings in person. There are more restrictions when it comes to visiting teams. “There are even smaller things,” explains Levy. “The three of us can’t go to the game together. We need to go there in separate cars.”

The announcers believe their job is to call attention to the game, not themselves. “We are going to cover the game and document how the game is won and all of the storylines that go with it, but we also want to have some fun,” says Griese. “Remember, this is entertainment.”

It certainly is for fans at home. But for Walt Disney, ESPN and the NFL,”Monday Night Football” will be something quite different until a new contract is signed.