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Volume 23 No. 24
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More divisional matchups set ESPN up for better Monday night ratings


Last NFL season was a rough one for ESPN. Uninspiring matchups combined with uncompetitive games caused “Monday Night Football” average viewership to drop 12 percent to 11.4 million, the franchise’s lowest viewer figure in a decade.

Some games, like Week 3’s Falcons-Saints matchup, suffered from schedule quirks. That was the game that went up against the first Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump debate, and its 8 million viewer average made it the least-viewed game in the history of “Monday Night Football.”

Magnus: “Cautiously optimistic” on ‘MNF.’
Other games, like the Week 13 Colts-Jets, was just bad football. Only 8.1 million viewers watched the Colts rout the Jets 41-10, a number that became the second-least-viewed game in “Monday Night Football” history.

The average margin of victory on “Monday Night Football” last season was an eye-popping 14 1/2 points.

With that as a backdrop, ESPN executives lobbied for a better schedule this year that featured more divisional games. The NFL complied, putting nine divisional matchups on the “Monday Night Football” schedule versus four from last year.

ESPN’s top programming executive, Burke Magnus, spoke with SportsBusiness Journal media reporter John Ourand about what to expect this season.

What are you expecting from “Monday Night Football” this season?
We’re cautiously optimistic. We feel really good about the schedule. We worked very closely with the NFL to make our priorities known, and we got great guidance from them. [NFL senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations] Howard Katz’s group has a ton of expertise. We’ve had close dialogue in the past, but we were more constant with them this time than we probably ever have been.

What did ESPN ask for?
“Monday Night Football” is a little bit of a different animal that’s got some built-in limitations. It is one game per week made in advance with no flex. But “Monday Night Football” is an important franchise for the league. They were not in any way happy with the results from last season either. I give them a ton of credit for recognizing what I would call an urgent situation relative to “Monday Night Football’s” performance and doing the very best that they could to improve it.

You have better games on paper, but you’re still at the mercy of teams playing well.
I spent 10 years in the world of college football. The whole notion of “throw out the records; this is a rivalry game” in college football means a lot. That same dynamic exists in the NFL. Those games are a lot more airtight than other matchups, mostly because they’re rivalries. We hope all of these teams have great records coming into their games on “Monday Night Football.” But even if those records aren’t as exalted as we’d want them to be, if it’s a divisional matchup, the stakes are higher. Period.

Has “Monday Night Football” lost some of its value?
We are all nostalgic for what “Monday Night Football” used to mean 35 or 40 years ago. Unquestionably, it’s still an important property for us and the league. Even in a down year last year, so many of these games were at the top of the cable television audience list for the year. There’s no question that it’s still a very important sports property from the most important and significant sports league, the NFL.

John Ourand