Money Can't Buy ESPN (Good) Games


When it comes to the National Football League, $1.1 billion apparently doesn’t buy you much.

That’s ESPN’s annual rights payment under an eight-year, $8.8 million dollar deal. For its 2008 outlay, the total sports network has received a 17-game Monday Night Football schedule featuring just two games matching playoff teams from the 2007 season: the week 8 Colts-Tennessee Titans battle on Oct. 27 and the Pittsburgh Steelers-Washington Redskins contest the week after on Nov. 3, the night before the presidential election. 

All told, ESPN gets 10 playoff teams from a year ago, including a trio of appearances from the Brett Favre-less Green Bay Packers and two Steelers contests.

Past that, ESPN only gets one game –week 6’s New York Giants-Cleveland Browns tilt — where winners from last year crack helmets and three others squaring a winner versus a .500 squad.

Yeah, I know ESPN receives an estimated $3.25 monthly license fee per sub, according to Kagan Associates, an industry-leading total fueled in large part by its NFL games. Yes, MNF’s presence supplies a day full of pro football lead-in fare and helps drive giant Web traffic. And yes, ESPN grabs significant ad dollars from MNF, which last season ranked as the top show in all of TV on Monday four times, and regularly set that night’s paces in the battle for key males demos. ESPN’s SportsCenter moment: cable’s most-watched live telecast ever, the Dec. 3 New England-Baltimore Ravens game that drew 17.5 million watchers. 

Also with free agency, the draft (hello, Mel) skewed schedules and injuries, teams’ fortunes can change quickly in a league marked by mediocrity, er parity. Translation: the slate can get better if the teams’ performances improve on the field. Moreover, ESPN not only gets last year’s Super Bowl champion G-men, but their vanquished foes, the New England Patriots versus the Denver Broncos in week 7.

Still on its face, the NFL didn’t do ESPN any favors with its 2008 schedule, which follows a 2007 that saw a 10% drop to a 7.3 national ratings average.

To be fair, the NFL didn’t dropkick a stinker of schedule only to Bristol: In-house service NFL Network’s slate isn’t exactly a burner, either.

Sure, there are appearances by six 2007 playoff teams. Yet, there is only one playoff match-up based on that standard: Indianapolis Colts-Jacksonville Jaguars in week 16. There is no other contest pitting winning squads from last year, although Arizona Cardinals-Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving night comes closest — both were 8-8 last year. Like ESPN, NFL Network is also stuck with one loser’s contest, even if it is a 2006 NFC title game redux, Chicago Bears-New Orleans Saints.

NFL Network’s schedule does hold some appeal, however.

For its $400 million to $450 million rights fees handoff, NFL Network hits the scrimmage line three weeks ahead of its Thanksgiving kickoffs in 2006 and 2007, as week 10 will find the Broncos on Nov. 6 visiting the new primetime darlings, the Browns, who will make five night-time appearances, when NBC’s schedule is factored in. 

Although it doesn’t have a week 17 contest — there was a game of some historic magnitude in this slot last season, you’ll recall — the NFL Network schedule should put it in the public and Congressional eye a tad longer this campaign. Fans, whose cable companies don’t (yet?) carry the controversial package, and their representatives in Washington will get to scream more often (you wanna know a secret, your Sunday Ticket bar televises the games) that big bad cable is intercepting the poor independent NFL and its network’s game plan calling for a 70-cents monthly license fee.

This time, though, there are no Pats or Giants on the NFL Network schedule to cause an outcry, although America’ Team plays the Baltimore Ravens in the Dec. 20 finale of the eight-game primetime package.

Contrast the NFL Network and ESPN’s action with NBC’s 2008 Sunday Night Football slate, for which the Peacock paid a paltry $600 million: 11 games pairing 2007 playoff teams. Unlike the cable networks, there is no match-up of last year’s losers. Further, NBC only has two games where a 2007 winner plays a 2007 loser (its Sunday night opener on Sept. 8 is a rematch of Super Bowl XLI, Colts-Bears) and two in which a sub-500 squad plays an even-finisher (the Eagles-Bears in week 4 and the Bears-Minnesota Vikings in week 13).

Not to mention that NBC gets to play flex schedule from week 11 forward (which ESPN broadcast brethren ABC loudly advocated for during its last few seasons in the game with MNF) and televise a pair of wild card playoff games annually for its six-year $3.6 billion investment. Two Super Bowls– the Big Game in Tampa, Feb. 1, 2009 and the championship contest in 2012 – and a pair of Pro Bowls are also part of the deal. 

It should be noted, though, that like ESPN, NBC saw its ratings fall with SNF: the package declined 8% to a 10.1 national rating, the nadir for an NFL broadcast primetime package. The 2007 season also marked the first time the broadcast primetime package trailed both Sunday-afternoon slates: Fox was up 1% to 10.7 national average, while CBS grew 5% to a 10.3.

For those keeping score, ratings benefited across the board last season from New England’s run at perfection. Spies and Mercury Morris whisper the bloom will be off that Nielsen rose this go-round.