Cable subscriber numbers are decreasing. Revenue losses are hitting ESPN hard, with billions committed to sports rights deals. Recent layoffs felt traumatic. Those may be surface level cuts compared to what is coming. With wheels in motion, it’s tough to gauge the future of ESPN now. But, a major tell for how the network moves forward will be what happens with Monday Night Football.

Looking at a rights breakdown, the Monday Night Football deal is ESPN’s first prime property to come up for renewal in 2021 (Sorry, AAC). It’s also ESPN’s most expensive, worth a staggering $1.9 billion per year. ESPN pays nearly as much as Fox and CBS pay combined for Sunday afternoon (about $2.1 billion per year). That one game per week costs ESPN more than its entire slate of college football properties combined.

Shedding that deal on the surface level would make sense. ESPN could cut the biggest cost while sacrificing the minimum amount of programming. It’s also not that great of a deal. Besides being fleeced, ESPN gets no Super Bowl and only one playoff game. The Monday Night package has no flex option. There has been some reporting the NFL has deliberately saddled ESPN with mediocre games. Eight teams will appear twice on Monday Night in 2017. The Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots are not among them.

Of course, in reality, cutting Monday Night Football is hardly that simple. The NFL imprimatur has been vital for ESPN’s growth. It’s the main reason ESPN can demand those huge subscriber fees. That established relationship with the NFL reduces the logical leap for other sports leagues to put premier properties (The College Football Playoff) on cable. Can we even imagine what ESPN programming would look like without NFL highlights and promotion? ESPN can’t banish the NFL to mainstream irrelevance the way it did with the NHL.

Needing the NFL is what gave the league leverage to jack up ESPN’s fee so high. Here is Broncos owner Pat Bowlen describing the NFL’s relationship with ESPN.

“We felt we deserved a larger share of that money because the N.F.L. is a big part of their programming,” he said. “They wouldn’t be anything near what they are without us.”

The question for ESPN is how important Monday Night Football will be in the next era. Much of that will depend on what ESPN looks like in 2021. Four years is an eternity in modern technological time. Is ESPN still, primarily, a linear TV network? Or, is ESPN a streaming and podcast emporium?

How much of ESPN’s revenue is still coming from cable subscriptions is key. We have seen subscriber numbers trickling away. That trickle becoming a flood may be as simple as fiber Internet companies getting better infrastructure. How many people stick with cable when they can get gigabyte Internet (ten times as fast) for $70 per month?

ESPN is probably still relying on subscriber income. But, to some extent, ESPN will be more of a streaming property selling direct to consumers. The more that grows the more impetus will move away from bullying cable providers into more money. So, how much does Monday Night Football matter?

The core ESPN viewer is subscribing to ESPN in the fall with or without Monday Night Football. It will be impossible to follow college football without having ESPN. The gravest problem for ESPN will be keeping subscribers on board from January to August when there’s no football.

Bundles prevent viewers from shutting down their cable and starting up again. ESPN won’t be able to stop people doing that with its streaming service. ESPN will also become more expensive, as the cost burden shifts from the broad cable subscribers to active ESPN consumers. That only heightens the incentive to dump ESPN during the football offseason.

From that perspective, paying heavily for the MLB and NBA regular seasons makes sense. Does ESPN dump MLB to keep Monday Night Football for 17 games and rely on the WNBA and MLS for three months per year?

Severing the relationship with the NFL would be crazy for ESPN. Going north of $2 billion per season, in the present and future financial climate, for 17 football games would seem crazy as well. Does ESPN try to move Hank and his rowdy friends over to Thursday Night? Does the NFL cut its longtime partner some slack? (Guessing not) Things will get interesting.

About Ty Duffy

Ty is a freelance writer/editor based outside Detroit. He's a Michigan Man. He enjoys dogs, whiskey, yoga, and composing pithy career summaries. Contact him at tyduffy@gmail.com.

  • Bscotch Bscotch

    You’re ignoring a key factor here – the sub rates they charge being dependent on having NFL games.

  • kelly

    I don’t watch ESPN for the MNF game, and I only watch live sports.

  • Paul Ollen

    If I were ESPN, I’d call the NFL’s bluff.

    ESPN is given 17 crappy games.They pay $100 million for each and every game. If they lose the 17 games (and highlights for their stupid talk shows) they will surviv
    e.

    • David

      ESPN’s profits come from subscriber fees. Even with the number of people who get ESPN dropping, that’s still billions of dollars that ESPN brings in that no other cable network can match. A lot of that is about the NFL. If they didn’t have NFL rights, those subscriber rates automatically drop. That deal is worth more to them than 17 games. It’s all the other NFL programming they’re paying for. They can’t give that up. Yea, they’d survive, but it would slash their profits in a huge way. Not worth it.

      • Paul Ollen

        How many people are going to drop espn/cable because of the 17 game crappy schedule and the ancillary programming?

        If ESPN cut their offer in half, what network is going to even pay the NFL that much?

        • David

          Very few. Plenty of people out there don’t want to pay for cable anymore. I doubt anyone is looking at ESPN’s NFL schedule and saying that’s the reason? What other network would pay that to the NFL? How about Turner. NBCSN. FS1. Any of them would love an opportunity to chop 1 of ESPN’s legs out from under them

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  • Steve R

    ESPN is not worth it. They have bad MNF games that start too late for the East Coast. SNF is the better of the two and TNF just sucks – The players have not fully recovered for a good Thursday game. New Years Day is not as good as it use to be because there are too many bowls throughout Dec. and Jan. ESPN does not lend itself to good baseball as the MLB network or team owned networks do because MLB is a daily event. Only the NBA game has any chance of being good but again the NBA network, TNT, TBS, and team owned channels are all better because the have multiple games per week. Loud personality driven ESPN shows are a bore and insulting to the average viewer. If I could have an ala carte package with my provider ESPN would be out.

    • Matt Galvin

      The World Series,MLB regular season games and Super Bowl on ABC?

      • Steve R

        WS is on FOX. Playoffs on FOX, MLB, and TBS maybe ESPN.

  • MrBull

    With cable cutting going on, all sports tv rights will be in question…the sports leagues better not try to squeeze the likes of espn and others as the $$$$ will not be there as increases…
    The NFL will have to start offering better games to espn for the Monday night package or it will be good bye….
    and by 2021 who knows, perhaps the NFL network will be the new home of Monday Night Football to help bolster the league Channel…

    • David

      Good bye? ESPN needs the NFL more than the NFL needs ESPN. Maybe there won’t be a big rights fee increase like last time, but ESPN values the NFL too highly to risk letting it get away. It’s their most important property and nothing else is close. They’ll pay dearly to keep it if they think someone else might take it away.

  • Dale Moog

    ESPN should shift focus to picking off the Sunday games from Fox or CBS. They could move them to ABC. They could also keep the weekday content on ESPN. They could stream the games on the ESPN app moving huge numbers to the online side. They could even keep the playoff game and the pro bowl on cable plus have 2 or 3 pre season games on cable, as well as get the Superbowl every 3 years. They could also grab the London games on Sunday mornings. I think they could do all that for less than they pay now. this would hurt fox and CBS. be a big win for ABC, switch the money focus to the network side and not the cable side, while still giving the cable side some content that they can take back to subscribers as real NFL game content. A win win for Disney

    • David

      ABC can’t drive revenues like ESPN can. Remember Disney once thought they could have both MNF and SNF. They didn’t want to pay for it and so NBC came swooping in. If Disney can only have 1 NFL package, they’ll want it on ESPN, not ABC. ESPN makes too much money off subscriber fees to move NFL programming elsewhere

      • Dale Moog

        You are right,but they would in reality have two contracts. The one on the network for Sunday games that they took from say FOX, and the cable package with select games including preseason the pro bowl and cable programming rights. Plus they could air the playoff games on ESPN and ABC like they do now. and maybe even the Thanksgiving game as well. This would give ESPN enough NFL content to still drive the Sub fees, and would give them more inventory as well as a chance at the SuperBowl. I think it would work. I think they got shafted in the last round of contracts. This time I think you could make these numbers work