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ESPN Makes Its Biggest Play Yet

Mike Penner / SOUND AND VISION

April 19, 2005|Mike Penner

So this is the payback ESPN gets for scuttling "Playmakers."

In the cutthroat world of television network rights negotiations, it is known as an offer ESPN could not refuse: Get rid of the foul-mouthed football soap opera the NFL finds so offensive and maybe, someday, the league will make nice and, you know, return the favor.

Such as taking the league's prime-time plum, "Monday Night Football," an American institution for 35 years on ABC, and dropping it into the lap of ESPN, appropriately enough, on Monday.

Obviously, it didn't go down as simply as that. These were complex contract talks that involved NBC getting pulled back into the game after seven years on the sideline and ABC shifting its Monday night priorities from football to drama-and-sitcom programming. But memories run long and deep inside the NFL's offices, and ESPN's executives are no dummies, despite their inexplicable continued affection for "Around the Horn."

ESPN knew it had to stay on good terms with the NFL the next time TV contracts were doled out. So the network swallowed its pride and buried its edgy sex-drugs-football-and-more-drugs drama to pull off the trade of a lifetime -- reeling in "Monday Night Football" as the major player to be named later.

Also, ESPN agreed to pay the NFL an awful lot of money. As in $1.1 billion a year for eight years.

For anyone wondering what it might take to ever move the prized "Monday Night Football" franchise to cable, there is the answer.

What next, the Super Bowl too?

Not yet. Not with this contract. Through 2012, the NFL will keep its showcase game on free TV -- with CBS getting it in 2007 and 2010, Fox getting the 2008 and 2011 games and NBC signing on for the 2009 and 2012 games.

According to terms of the new deal, NBC will pay $600 million a year for six years for the Sunday night package previously owned by ESPN -- meaning the NFL will rake in $1.7 billion a year so ESPN and NBC can televise two games a week each NFL regular season.

"The analysis [of the deal] is very simple," said media consultant Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. "You know, they asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. And he said, 'That's where the money is.'

"Why are the sports leagues finding a new home on ESPN? And the answer is: That's where the money is. ESPN generates more than $2 billion a year in subscriber fees. No other [over-the-air] broadcast network has that resource."

Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, looked at the gaudy numbers on the NFL's latest Sunday and Monday football contracts and laughed.

"You can't fault the league for being consistent," he quipped.

No, the NFL has consistently made whichever move -- expansion teams, stadiums, TV contracts -- has made its owners the most money. According to sources, ABC and ESPN bid a combined $1.5 billion annually to maintain the status quo -- "Monday Night Football" on ABC and Sunday night games on ESPN. The NBC-ESPN package came in at about $200 million a year better than that.

Say this much for NFL owners: They aren't about to leave $200 million a year on the table just to prop up the 35-year-old national habit of turning on ABC every autumn Monday night.

Howard Cosell and "Dandy Don" Meredith? Oh, they were so 1972, anyway.

Meanwhile, the networks conclude their latest game of NFL musical chairs. Every few years, they congregate for a new round. Fox bumped CBS in 1993, CBS took out NBC in 1997, NBC climbs back in over ABC in 2005.

Evidently, when it comes to the American addiction known as the NFL, a television network can afford to go cold turkey only so long.

ABC, of course, belongs to the same Disney-owned media family as ESPN, making its loss of the NFL a bit less painful.

"NBC's obviously gotten back in the game, and had to pay a sizable chunk of change to get back into the game," Swangard said. "And ABC's putting its money on the strongest complementary cable sports network that any [over-the-air] network has to offer."

That's a significant point from the perspective of Al Michaels, entering his 20th season as ABC's "Monday Night Football" play-by-play commentator. Michaels calls his "Monday Night" role "an honor, I love it more than ever" -- and says he would like to continue with it after ABC's contract expires with the 2005 season, pulling on an ESPN headset in 2006.

"I don't know how it's going to shake out," Michaels said. "I don't want to speculate. I'm just going to sit back and get my head together to do 'Monday Night' this year and do it the same way we've done it for a lot of years and just put my heart and soul into it. As will John [Madden]."

Pilson says he expects ESPN will keep the Michaels-Madden team together in 2006.

"My guess is as good as anyone's," he said, "but I think for the purposes of continuity, it's likely that Michaels and Madden will continue on 'Monday Night Football.' "

Currently, ESPN's Sunday night NFL broadcast team consists of Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann and Paul Maguire.

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