SBJ/20080428/Media

Curse of ‘Playmakers’? No, ESPN’s NFL schedule makes sense

The disparity between NBC and ESPN’s 2008 NFL schedules has been great fodder when talking to sources during the last few weeks.

The fact that NBC has such a better schedule has led several senior executives from rival networks, ad sales and cable operators to wonder what the NFL has against ESPN. It’s not even close: NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has better teams playing in better games than ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

For a network that’s paying $1.1 billion every year to the league — the most of any network partner — ESPN has to be more than a little annoyed. I know I would be.

ESPN will get the non-marquee 49ers-Cardinals
matchup again, and that’s just the start.
But the NFL’s decision makes sense. In fact, if I were advising the league, I would have suggested that it mete out the games exactly as it did.

The main reason comes down to simple economics. The NFL wants to ensure the health of its prime-time broadcast window, which suffered through the lowest-ever ratings for a broadcast prime-time NFL season last year, when NBC averaged a 10.0 national broadcast rating (down 9 percent from the previous season) and 16 million viewers (down 9 percent).

NBC’s contract with the NFL expires in 2011, two years earlier than ESPN’s. The league wants to maintain a prime-time broadcast presence, so it makes sense that it would try to give NBC a stronger schedule. If NBC’s schedule is weak and ratings fall, what’s the likelihood that another broadcaster will pony up $600 million a year for the rights?

ESPN, on the other hand, is wedded to “Monday Night Football.” It’s not going anywhere. In fact, if it lost those games, it would lose a significant portion of its nearly $4 per subscriber a month license fee that cable and satellite operators pay it. ESPN’s contracts with the cable and satellite operators allow the network to attach a significant surcharge if it has the highly rated NFL games. Lose the games, lose the surcharge.

Plus, there’s much more competition for the cable package, with Versus, Turner, FSN and NFL Network — and any other channel that pops up between now and 2013 — ready to test the NFL waters.

ESPN also posted the Monday night package’s lowest-ever ratings last year, with an 8.6 cable coverage area rating (down 13 percent from the previous season) and 11 million viewers (down 9 percent).

But the Monday night package still works for ESPN, which has a much more extensive multiplatform strategy surrounding its NFL games than any of the broadcast networks.

ESPN’s Monday night package tallied some of the strongest cable ratings ever, including last season’s Patriots-Ravens game, which drew cable’s biggest-ever audience with 17.2 million viewers. In fact, three Monday night games, including two from 2006, are among the top five viewed cable telecasts ever.

But even though the deal works for ESPN, it’s still shocking to see how much better NBC’s schedule looks than ESPN’s.

I understand that nobody can predict right now which games will matter in November and December. And I realize that if the stars align for Bristol, it could end up with the stronger schedule.

But how many people really believe that the Browns and Packers will have better seasons than the Cowboys, Patriots, Colts and Giants? ESPN has the Browns and Packers three times each. NBC has the other teams three times each.

For me, ESPN’s schedule can be summed up by one game: Nov. 10, 49ers vs. Cardinals. I don’t see other networks clamoring for this game, but 2008 will mark the third time in four years that ESPN has it.

The numbers tell the story. Of the 32 appearances by teams scheduled for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” there were 25 playoff appearances last season among them. By comparison, of the 34 appearances by teams on ESPN’s “MNF,” there were 14 playoff appearances.

Three teams appearing on NBC this season had a losing record last year. ESPN will feature 11 teams with losing records last season and 20 appearances by teams that did not make the playoffs at all.

ESPN has only two games that feature 2008 playoff teams facing each other — Colts-Titans and Steelers-Redskins — which means it will be in D.C. the night before the Presidential election, which ESPN hopes will lend added cachet.

Meanwhile, the Peacock network gets a stronger mix of teams and lands the marquee Patriots-Colts, Giants-Eagles, Cowboys-Redskins and Colts-Chargers all during November sweeps. Remember, last year’s Patriots-Colts game was CBS’s highest-rated game of the year.

NBC only has one game featuring two non-2008 playoff teams, the Chicago Bears vs. the Minnesota Vikings, and that comes in Week 13 during the flexible part of its schedule.

As one longtime NFL writer told sister publication SportsBusiness Daily recently, “ESPN spent all that money for ‘Monday Night Football,’ and no one told them that Sunday night would become the new Monday.”

It’s clear that the NFL considers NBC’s Sunday night package to be its premiere prime-time package. Monday is valuable to ESPN, but you have to wonder what becomes of the powerful brand and cultural influence that “Monday Night Football” once had. n

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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