From 1987 to 2006, ESPN held the rights to Sunday Night Football. When NBC scooped up that package, ESPN grabbed Monday Night Football and has broadcast that weekly game ever since. In other words, it has been more than 30 years since ESPN did not air live NFL games.

But ESPN’s rights deal for Monday Night Football expires in 2021, and amid the ongoing financial turmoil at the network, the brass in Bristol could have a decision to make: should it re-up with the NFL, or move forward with no football package?

[link_box id=”81189″ site_id=”94″ layout=”link-box-third” alignment=”alignright”]According to media reporter Jim Miller, executives at the network are beginning to wonder whether it’s time to walk away from pro football. Writing for The Hollywood ReporterMiller offered five reasons why ESPN bailing on the NFL could be coming:

  • ESPN has removed language from its contracts with cable companies that promises NFL games to justify subscriber fees.
  • The network is disappointed with the games it winds up with on MNF, as more appealing games land at NBC, Fox, and CBS.
  • ESPN would likely be able to negotiate for rights to the NFL highlights it needs without ponying up for MNF.
  • Competition from digital companies like Amazon, Twitter, and Facebook will (likely) have increased by 2021, driving up rights fees.
  • The NFL is “cuddling up closer” to broadcast networks, which are considered more stable than cable networks like ESPN.

Miller is not reporting that the NFL will move away from football or even predicting it, but he makes a compelling case for why it would make sense.

When ESPN laid off 100 front-facing personalities earlier this year, signaling publicly that the network’s uninterrupted run of financial prosperity had come to an end, rights fees were fingered as a major reason why. The network negotiated not only its NFL deal but also its baseball, basketball, and college sports deals expecting subscriber fees to remain high for the foreseeable future. When cord-cutters put a dent in cable television’s subscriber base, ESPN was stuck with giant rights deals and a somewhat murky future. As Miller points out, the network could free up a whole lot of cash by letting the NFL walk away.

Of course, there’s somewhat of an existential question at play here. ESPN famously prides itself on being the “worldwide leader in sports,” and it’s harder to make that claim if you don’t broadcast the nation’s most popular league. ESPN has ample reason to think hard about its Monday Night Football deal, but parting with the NFL would be a dramatic step the network won’t take lightly.

[The Hollywood Reporter]

About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports, MLB.com, SI.com and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.

  • Jeff Dudash

    Let me get this straight: more people are cord cutting, so you’re going to DECREASE the attractiveness of your product? It’s like Apple saying “Eh… fewer people are buying the iPhone, so we’re going to make the new iPhone WORSE.”

    I suspect this is ESPN planting a story to help with future negotiations. Sure, ESPN needs to get its costs down, and paying less for the NFL would be an easy way to do that, but losing the NFL would be devastating for the network. And I just don’t know how big of a threat someone like Amazon is at this point. The economics needed for Amazon to be able to compete against ESPN simply can’t be there yet.

    • Jeff Dudash

      BTW, what type of leverage would ESPN have with distributors without the NFL as a bargaining chip? Miller cites that ESPN could use $1.5 billion to go on a rights-fee shopping spree, but who is going to pay a $7/subscriber fee for HOCKEY or even a couple weeks of MLB postseason?

      • David Person

        You got to go to the HWR and read the story. They don’t need the NFL to charge a $7 sub fee; it’s already built into the contracts. Also, ESPN hasn’t had hockey for 12 years now.

        • David

          That’s going to make the next round of contract negotiations pretty tough. ESPN thinks they’ll still get the same value without the NFL? I’ll believe it when I see it. They’ll do their best to dump out of a lot of things before they pass on the NFL and allow a rival network to pick up that package. Who else is going to pay what ESPN can offer?

          • Patrick Ryan Williford

            Actually ESPN would be wise to let FS1 overbid for the MNF rights while they free up space on their books and cultivate other properties that they spend pennies on the dollar for.

    • Shawn Diiorio

      thats why i think this article is bullshit. they are not dumping football

  • WolfmanOtto

    They are pretty fucked. They still basically run college football, but that will only bleed away in the coming years. In 15 years, the cable packages as we know them will be done. People who are over 40 still consume the way they used to, but everyone under that age is starting to figure out its better to buy OTT and ESPN cant capture the premium they currently have that way.

  • Bscotch Bscotch

    With existing rights fee deals having built-in escalators, plus the inevitable drop in sub fees (combined with continued UE shrinkage), I’d think the money freed up by not renewing MNF would be used to pay for what they’ve already bought…..not to go out on a spending spree. Miller loves playing vulture to the ESPN carcass.

  • Sting Rey

    this was bound to happen. once the nfl began prioritizing sunday night football as their premiere game. MNF was going get the scraps.
    the other side of the rights issue is the coverage. because they are so deeply invested into the nfl. espn feels compelled to over cover the league. this is why tom brady’s vacation, julio jones’s twitter feed and other mundane, innocuous stories are treated as earth shattering events.

  • Morrill Turpitude

    The article does not mention ESPCN’s biggest two problems: the swift loss of viewers due to ESPCN’s leftward political slant, and the money-losing NBA deal hanging on their necks.

    • Robbymack87

      hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Interesting tie-in there. Whatever could you be alluding to?

    • PeteF3

      How come FS1 is molting viewers faster than ESPN?

      • Morrill Turpitude

        Because it is starting to look like ESPCN in its non-game programming and has fewer things worthy of tuning into.

    • Christopher Bates

      Wait. You put a C in there to make it esPCn. Because they’re liberal and politically correct! That’s hilarious! Sooooo clever! However did you come up with that? Was it all by yourself, or did your mommy help you?

    • Another Hurricanes Goal

      This is what we do now. Claim political outrage when anything happens.

  • “Miller is not reporting that the NFL will move away from football or even predicting it”

    One would think not, but having heard about the current season, the NFL sure seems to leaving football for reality shows.

  • JWJ

    Some people say that what ESPN will really do is partner with the NFLPA and form a new league so that the players can break the chains of slavery that currently exist.
    Some people say that Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, might be willing to invest as well.

    • Shawn Diiorio

      and all that will do is lead to another league where everything ends up being the same in the end.

    • BobLee Says

      “some people” …. is that like the ubiquitous “they say”?

    • WolfmanOtto

      People root for the laundry, not the players. The NBA may be the only sport where that isnt the case. There are very few NFL players who would be missed if they dissappeared tomorrow.

  • MrBull

    The problem is the games for the most part on Monday are second rate compared to when the games were on ABC…
    NBC has become the new ABC for prime time games….
    The league should do away Thursday night. And give the better games back to Monday night – – perhaps show them on the league Network

    • Half-Hour Boy

      They’re never getting rid of the Thursday games what should happen is that if MNF moves back to ABC which is likely unless another network outbids they should change the rules and allow MNF to get the same flexing rules that NBC has but NBC still has main priority.

  • sportsfan365

    ESPN is inexorably moving towards soccer and basketball, as the demographics for the other major sports doesn’t buy sports Nike or Adidas crap.

    • ua2

      soccer’s demographic in this country is the youngest and tech-savviest. They are most definitely cord cutting.

      • But MLS ratings are pathetic, and ESPN doesn’t are European club soccer.

    • Jon

      From a cost-vs.-programming level, ESPN’s overpriced NBA contract is a better bad investment than ESPN’s overpriced NFL contract — the Monday night games still draw higher ratings, but ESPN only gets 17 of those per year, compared to the number of regular season and playoff games they get out of the NBA contract. And you could already see the handwriting on the wall this summer, when EPSN prioritized coverage of the Vegas summer league for the NBA over promoting their MLB coverage.

      If the suits as ESPN and Disney really have decided to drop their NFL package and aren’t simply using the rumor as a negotiations ploy, you’ll see more and more of an emphasis on things like that, since the NBA contract’s locked in through 2025. It’s worth it to them to promote a sport they’ll be with through the middle of the next decade (and are shelling our huge bucks to broadcast) over a sport they may already decided they’re done with four years from now.

  • JeffinOKC

    1. Anyone who claims to know what the media delivery world will look like in 3 years is talking out their rectal area.
    2. ESPN loaded up with staff (Both front and rear facing) 3 or 4 years ago in anticipation of the launch of CBS Sports Network, NBCSN, Fox Sports One & Two. Sports television minutes tripled in less than 6 months. Claiming cord cutting is the reason for all staff reductions is untrue.

  • Patrick Ryan Williford

    The NFL’s greed and lack of remorse for CTE, etc will see it overtaken by the end of the deal. Honestly if I was ESPN I would buy out the contract now and work to cultivate smaller cheaper properties and/or stragically schedule huge OOC CBK matchups on Mondays.

  • HozeKing

    The NFL is NASCARing right in front of us. Fewer people go to the games. Fewer people wartch…period. Just like NASCAR it just isn’t compelling anymore. Neither is chocolate ice cream if you eat it every night. Throw in the CTE issue and you have a collapsing sport. Just wait until colleges realize they can’t afford the liability both financial and image.

  • GameFederer

    It also doesn’t help that it doesn’t feel as important of what MNF used to be. Sunday Night Football is usually THE marquee game. It makes sense. MNF pre-2006 was on ABC so it was on network with more viewers. ESPN had SNF and they were usually getting the sloppy seconds of what ABC didn’t want for MNF. The only way ESPN gets a good Monday Night matchup is if some mid-card team from last year ends up being really good this year, otherwise in the first half of the season before the flex scheduling is done NBC picks all the higher marquee games. I also just never liked the presentation.

    • Walt_Gekko

      What is presently Sunday Night Football actually WAS Monday Night Football prior to 2006. NBC wanted to move it to Sunday Night because at the time the deal was done, Monday was the only strong night in prime time for NBC (even opposite MNF) plus it did not want to have to delay Jay Leno (now Jimmy Fallon) to 12:45 AM ET or later in the eastern half of the country (late night was and continues to be a cash cow for NBC). ESPN’s package is a beefed up version of the old Sunday night package that became MNF when NBC insisted on moving what was MNF to Sunday Night.

      That is something that has tripped up a lot of people, especially those too young to remember MNF actually being on ABC (where it was losing $150 Million a year for Disney, which is why they let NBC have it).

      • PeteF3

        Also, flex scheduling is pretty much impossible with MNF, and the rise of that led to Sunday becoming the marquee prime time night.

        • Walt_Gekko

          They were going to have the flexes to MNF. Actually, had Disney kept both prime time packages, you probably would have seen it where games could be flexed to EITHER Sunday or Monday night AND in some cases going from ESPN on Sunday to ABC on Monday.

      • GameFederer

        Not confused about it. I am aware that SNF now is what MNF was before the move to NBC. I actually like it better this way because SNF is usually one of, if not THE game of the week. So it’s a nice way to end the day after the early games on the same day, not waiting 36 hours or so to see it on Monday night.

        • Walt_Gekko

          You are not, but many people, especially those born after say 1995 or so might not realize it because they were too young to remember ABC having MNF.

  • Walt_Gekko

    What seems to be forgotten is this:

    The package NBC got actually WAS Monday Night Football through 2005. Had it remained on ABC, the flex scheduling we have now WOULD have been to Monday Night, not Sunday.

    NBC moved it to Sunday night because at the time, it had a very strong Monday Night prime time lineup plus they did not want to have games start at approximately 9:15 PM ET (due to a lot of affiliates wanting local programming to run to at least 6:00 PM local time ahead of it) that would have delayed Jay Leno (now Jimmy Fallon) to 12:45 AM ET or later in the eastern half of the country. ABC was losing $150 Million a year on that package and NBC at the time the deal was done was desperate.

    ESPN’s package is a beefed-up version of its old Sunday night package.

    I suspect there will have to be a happy medium where ESPN keeps Monday Night Football (part of a highly successful 1-2 punch for Disney with “Dancing With The Stars” on ABC), but perhaps where flex scheduling is expanded to where games can be moved to Sunday AND/OR Monday night (including where a game can be moved from NBC to ESPN to replace a bad game on ESPN where NBC can get a game of equal importance).

    • Another Hurricanes Goal

      Yeah. I totally didn’t know that. It makes sense’ espn Sunday night was filled with terrible matchups and everyone had to make an appearance, sounds like the current MNF.

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  • BobLee Says

    The Question is… eventually (1) “the kneelers” will stop kneeling and (2) the Bob McNairs will be sedated… and THEN will the former viewers and on-site spectators return to NFL ??? Personally, I don’t think they will, not to the level of even 1-2 years ago, much less to the “glory days of NFL printing $$$”. Once a viewing addiction is broken – as it has been for many already – it is no longer “must see TV”.

  • eddie

    Why gonna win Monday night football in 2021 and beyond ?

  • L Garou

    How about going with Snoop Dog and JayZ in the broadcast booth for MNF!!
    Get it over with.. (lol)

  • Tom Stein

    Yes. I believe it is time for ESPN to end Monday Night Football after the 2021-22 season. I think Monday Night Football should be available only on Pay-Per-View. Do away with ALL Thursday night games, INCLUDING Week 1 AND Thanksgiving.

  • notfunny2u

    I’d like to ask my fellow AA commenters if they see/feel what I do, and that is younger people (I’m 39 so I mean people younger than me, but I feel this about my peers as well) are just not into sports as much as prior generations. And I don’t mean in the “they have other entertainment options”-sorta way….

    It seems that, starting with my generation, there really has been this popular sentiment of trashing “the jock”. “Jocks” (aka the guys on the football team) became people looked down upon. The persona became cultural shorthand for bullies, the less intelligent, and (what could kindly be referred to as) assholes. WIth their demise began the rise of the “nerd” (whatever that means to whoever is intrepeting it)…and youth culture stopped venerating sports heros and instead looked for direction practically everywhere else.

    Combine this with the high “anti-authority” (NOT to be confused with anti-authoritarian) sentiment holding sway in our culture and its easy to see why younger people do not respond to a game, like football, that is the epitome of top-down military structure. A sport first suited to the tastes of a Cold-War society is NOT a sport suited to the tastes of those raised in the “participation trophy”-era and on into these “social justice” times. How can a society of Instagram stars and Snapchatters honestly relate to a game where the individual is 99% of the time just a cog in the system. To young people today, the concent of “next man up” so embedded in football is incomprehensible. I mean, how can the “next man” possibly fill their special shoes?

    Okay…TL;DR…sorry.

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