Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN isn't spending more than $1 billion a year on "Monday Night Football" just so the sports network can get big ratings once a week.
ESPN depends on the NFL to bring in viewers even when it doesn't have a game on. With that in mind, the sports cable network is rolling out a new ad campaign to promote all of its NFL-related shows, especially its tentpole "Sunday NFL Countdown," a three-hour preview of the big games.
"We almost never take our foot off the gas in terms of NFL coverage," said Seth Ader, ESPN's senior director of marketing. "It's really just about fan interest. We don't do it for any reason other than we're filling a need."
Well, fan interest may not be the only reason. ESPN once had the field to itself. Broadcast networks CBS, NBC and Fox had pre- and post-game shows every Sunday, but that was it. ESPN could own the NFL the rest of the week.
That is no longer the case. Not only does the NFL have its own channel that carries games and covers the news, NBC's recently relaunched NBC Sports Network is also looking to grab a piece of ESPN's audience. In addition, there are scores of regional sports outlets around the country that cover the NFL around the clock.
"We have competitors coming at us from all sides, including the league," acknowledged Ader.
ESPN is also competing with itself. Its sister channels, including ESPN2 and ESPN News, are competing for the same audience as the mother ship. But at least in that case the ad dollars all go to the same place.
The TV spots themselves feature ESPN talent (Chris Berman, Mike Ditka, Herm Edwards) NFL stars (Justin Tuck) and fans cavorting at a resort. Think rock 'n' roll fantasy camp for football fans. Although the ads were made to look like the campaign was shot in Hawaii, it was actually filmed in Malibu and Rancho Palos Verdes.
The campaign follows a new marketing pitch ESPN launched for "Monday Night Football" starring Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and several players, including Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Of course, ultimately all the ads in the world won't make the ratings bigger if the games are not compelling. Last year, ESPN averaged just over 13 million viewers for "Monday Night Football." Although that is a big number in today's fragmented media landscape, it was off from the average audience of almost 15 million in the 2010 season.
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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.