For a minute there, it looked as if ESPN might have one of its most valuable properties, its NFL playoff game, ripped away from it and handed to its biggest rival. Back in February, John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported that Fox’s new Thursday Night Football package might come with an extra postseason game, which the league would be allowed to yank from ESPN as part of its contract with the network.
But it seems that ESPN has avoided that fate, at least for the moment. Ourand now reports (and an ESPN release seems to confirm) that the NFL has decided to keep the playoff game on ESPN for at least one more season, after interim network president George Bodenheimer and current president Jimmy Pitaro worked to repair a relationship with the league that had been damaged under John Skipper. Via SBJ:
But interim ESPN President George Bodenheimer and new President Jimmy Pitaro worked to repair that relationship almost immediately and made several concessions to show the league that a new, more NFL-friendly regime was in place. For example, they agreed to carry the NFL Draft’s third day on ABC and produce exclusive NFL Draft coverage on ESPN2 throughout the weekend. In a move that could be interpreted as an olive branch to ESPN, the NFL decided to keep the wildcard game on the network — though the league could opt to make the switch to Fox the following season.
This helps explain why ESPN broadcasted its draft coverage so widely last month, in a way that was easy to deride as excessive.
Per Ourand, ESPN pays $100 million for the right to air that one playoff game but also has “look-ins” built into its agreement that allow the NFL to change the terms as it sees fit. With the league frustrated at ESPN and interested in rewarding Fox, it apparently considered pulling the contest, which typically airs on ABC in addition to ESPN.
As it stands, ESPN owns the least appealing NFL playoff slot, Saturday afternoon in the first round, and tends to draw the weakest ratings of all postseason games. But still, we’re talking about the NFL playoffs, where even the least appealing matchup in the least desirable time slot draws millions of viewers. For example, the January 2017 Raiders-Texans playoff game on ESPN/ABC drew “only” 25.1 million viewers, fewest of all playoff windows — yet more than every 2017 NBA Finals game, all but one World Series game and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament final.
And so ESPN gets to breathe easy in the knowledge it will again be airing an NFL playoff game. At least until we do this again next year.