Of the 17 “Monday Night Football” games played on ESPN in 2016, just two featured teams that would both go on to make the playoffs. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” package, meanwhile, got five such games thanks in part to the network’s league-awarded ability to flex out less-appealing contests for more meaningful matchups.
Don’t think this fact is lost on ESPN in the era of cord-cutting, subscriber losses and astronomical rights fees. Burke Magnus, the network’s executive vice president of programming and scheduling, admitted as much on Wednesday, one day before the NFL’s 2017 regular season schedule was released.
“We have high expectations because we’ve been as engaged with the league as we ever have been in terms of what the results are going to be,” Magnus said at the 2017 CAA World Congress of Sports, per Sports Business Daily. “We’ve done everything we can possibly do to communicate with the league and guide them in terms of our preferences, and now we’ll see.”
So let’s take a look to see if ESPN’s lobbying paid off.
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) April 21, 2017
Evaluating a schedule months before the season begins is a fool’s errand, obviously: Some of the teams that were good last year are not going to be good this year (see the 2016 Carolina Panthers) while bad teams from 2016 are going to be good. Awful Announcing called it a better schedule — at least in terms of market sizes of the teams involved and the previous success of the teams themselves — but not “by a whole lot.”
This is the part where we’ll remind everyone that ESPN’s deal with the NFL has been a disaster, comparatively: In exchange for $1.9 billion annually, the network gets the set-in-stone “Monday Night Football” matchups, one playoff game (usually the least appealing of the wild-card matchups), no Super Bowls, the right to show highlights and the draft (for which it competes for viewers with the NFL Network). The amount ESPN pays by itself isn’t all that far from what the other three networks pay combined — somewhere around $3.5 billion per season — and they all get the Super Bowl every couple of years. NBC comes out even better: It gets the Super Bowl plus the right to more or less craft its late-season schedule as it sees fit.
In any case, ESPN says it’s happy with its current NFL agreement. For an all-sports network with hours and hours of programming to fill — plus an entire digital sports platform to maintain — the right to broadcast NFL highlights alone is perhaps worth the high cost. Plus, even if the ratings are down, they’re still better than pretty much everything else on Monday night television.
“ESPN has an expansive multimedia rights agreement with the NFL that includes Monday Night Football games as well as year-round NFL studio programs, digital, international and other rights,” Bill Hofheimer, ESPN’s senior director of communications, said in a statement emailed to The Post. “We offer NFL content every day of the year across multiple networks and platforms — all of which we are able to sell ads against. Calculating the value of our agreement simply based on the schedule of prime time games is a woefully inaccurate accounting of our investment with the league.”