Big One For ESPN In Big D

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If Yogi’s right and it gets late early out there, ESPN needs a big one from Monday Night Football with the Nielsens tonight.

Three games into the 2011 season, MNF is 0 for 3 in matching up with last season’s ratings’ performances. The opener of the primetime package’s first-night doubleheader saw New England-Miami average 14.6 million viewers, down 2% from the nearly 15 million for New York Jets-Baltimore during last year’s kickoff, while the Sept. 12 Oakland-Denver nightcap scored with 11.1 million viewers, 7% light of the 11.9 million for Kansas City-San Diego last season.

Last week, the New York Giants-St. Louis Rams game, blitzed by the opening night crush of the new Ashton Kutcher-led Two and a Half Men and the Charlie Sheen roast on Comedy Central, fell 21% to 11.9 million from 15.1 million for New Orleans-San Francisco a year earlier.

Tonight, the schedule-maker could work in the worldwide leader’s favor: The Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team, led by Tony Romo, he of the punctured lung and fractured ribs, host Rex Grossman’s surprising, 2-0 Washington Redskins at Jerry’s World. Indeed, the big market match-up of bitter rivals from the NFC East is arguably near the top of ESPN’s MNF slate this season.

However, it’s facing some tough Nielsen competition from its 2010 counterpart: Chicago’s 20-17 win over Green Bay averaged a 12.5 cable rating, a 10.8 national mark, 12.5 million households and nearly 17.45 million viewers, according to Nielsen data. That ranks as the ninth-most-viewed telecast in cable history.

Last season, MNF, propelled by a couple of late-season winners — Brett Favre’s career-ending performance drew 17.1 million for Minnesota-Chicago on Dec. 20, 2010, while New Orleans-Atlanta garnered 19.1 million watchers a week later to rank fifth all-time — managed to ease past its 2009 deliveries and establish new Nielsen season benchmarks on ESPN by averaging a 10.5 rating, 10.5 million homes and 14.7 million watchers.

Scrutiny for MNF has been ratcheted up by ESPN’s new eight-year, $15.2 billion contract extension that was announced on Sept. 8, the first day of the 2011 campaign that saw NBC televise the Packers’ win over the Saints.

The most expensive rights deal in U.S. sports media history — the actual MNF extension part of the pact doesn’t take effect until the 2014 campaign — has prompted a number of stories about attendant license fee increases stemming from the contract. ESPN officials maintain that one property doesn’t determine its license fee, which at some $4.50 or more per month, is by far cable’s highest this side of premium channels.

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