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ESPN Gets Monday Night Football Deal

4/18/2005 9:59 AM Eastern

Broadcast television’s premier weekly primetime-sports series, Monday Night Football, will move to cable with The Walt Disney Co.-owned ESPN taking over the rights from sister service ABC beginning in 2006, according to network executives.

NBC will take over ESPN’s Sunday Night Football National Football League package as part of a six-year, $3.6 billion deal, which will also include a pair of wild-card playoff games annually and Super Bowl telecasts in 2009 and 2012. CBS and Fox currently rotate Super Bowl telecasts with ABC.

ESPN’s eight-year deal is expected to cost $1.1 billion annually, according to industry sources.

ABC -- which paid $550 million for its current deal, expiring at the end of the upcoming season -- has lost at least $150 million annually on the package, according to sports-TV observers. Nevertheless, MNF has been a staple on broadcast television for 35 years, and its move to ESPN is a major acquisition for the cable industry.

As part of the deal, the network said it would receive the same quality, marquee games that ABC garnered during its MNF run.

“It’s a huge day for ESPN,” said George Bodenheimer, Disney Media Networks co-chairman and ESPN and ABC Sports president. “Who would have thought 25 years ago that we would have NFL football? It’s not the end of the era; it’s the beginning of an era.”

Bodenheimer said ESPN would not seek additional rate fees from operators to pay for the NFL package. The network’s new rate agreement, reached with most operators last year, calls for annual hikes in the 7% range -- substantially less than the yearly 20% increases ESPN had been levying -- in exchange for launches of additional ESPN services.

While the network will not be able to count on the 20% annual increases, industry executives said ESPN’s overall rate will approach the $3.50-per-subscriber range by the time the deal expires in 2013.

Bodenheimer also said the new pact would not hamper the network in its efforts to renew other major sports packages, such as Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, or to acquire such properties as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing when those deals come up over the next couple of years.

“We feel confident about not only our current mix of programming, but about what we can envision down the road,” Bodenheimer said. “Our expectation is that ESPN will continue to deliver double-digit growth to The Walt Disney Co. over the next five years.” ESPN executive vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro said Disney never bid on the Sunday NightFootball package for ABC, which would have short-circuited its successful Sunday-night lineup featuring breakout hit Desperate Housewives.

“We were not interested in football for ABC television,” Bodenheimer added. “Sunday night was never ever in the cards for ABC.”

NBC has been adamant for years that it would not pursue sports properties unless they could return a profit. Sources suggested that being part of the Super Bowl rotation could help the “Peacock Network” -- which has sustained significant primetime erosion this year among Madison Avenue-coveted adults 18-49 -- make its way into the black with its NFL deal.

“This one, we can afford,” NBC Universal chairman and CEO Bob Wright said, noting that ad revenue alone would make it profitable. “This is not the full-scale extravaganza of Monday nights on ESPN; this is affordable and, in that respect, it’s very attractive.”

Wright and NBC Stations Group head Randy Falco wouldn’t comment on whether or not NBC affiliates would be asked to cough up money to help pay for the games.

NBC Universal Sports and Olympics chairman Dick Ebersol said formal negotiations with the NFL didn’t begin until Friday afternoon, after Disney passed on the Sunday-night game package.

With its Sunday- and Monday-night lineups now in place, the NFL still has some work to do on its TV playbook: A late-season package of Thursday- and Saturday-night games is still up for grabs. Any number of carriers from Fox and USA Network to Turner Network Television and Comcast Corp. have been said to be interested in this package.

The league’s own service, NFL Network, has also expressed interest in the package, which would serve as a run-up to the playoffs.

Last November, the NFL completed renewal deals with its Sunday-afternoon carriers to the tune of $11.5 billion. Fox paid some $4.3 billion ($712 million per season for six seasons) for the National Football Conference package, while News Corp. sister service DirecTV Inc. agreed to outlay some $3.5 billion ($700 million per season for five seasons) for the out-of-market “NFL Sunday Ticket” package. CBS retained the American Football Conference deal for $3.7 billion ($622 million per season for six seasons).

Mike Reynolds
and Stephen Donohue contributed to this story.