This evening, a big hullabaloo will be made when the NFL reveals not which teams play whom, which we knew when the regular season concluded, but when they play each other. This matters as fans start to pencil in dates in their calendars for purposes of road trips or praying there are no overlapping weddings, but it’s not universe altering.
The real stakes are at the network level. There are only so many pieces of the good game pie, and the market share FOX, CBS, NBC, NFL Network, and ESPN each get of the top-tier games is a major variable in overall viewership. The last two seasons, ESPN has not been given games in accordance with the staggering amount it pays the league for broadcasting rights.
Last year, for example, only three out of 17 games — Pittsburgh-Washington, Houston-Denver, and Washington-Carolina — featured two teams that made the playoffs the previous season. Denver no longer had the league’s most popular player in Peyton Manning, and Houston has only made the playoffs the last two seasons because the AFC South is putrid. In contrast, NBC, thanks to both the games given to them early in the season and the flexing option, had 10 matchups featuring teams that were both in the playoffs in 2015, plus four games involving the Dallas Cowboys, easily the most desirable television draw.
The situation was especially dire in the lead-up to the election. Play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough eviscerated the officiating for throwing so many flags in an October matchup between the Jets and Cardinals, and said, “If we’re looking for reasons why TV ratings are down in the NFL all over the place, this doesn’t help.”
Here is what the ratings landscape looked like in mid-November:
Fox was bolstered by having a lot of Cowboys games — they are always the biggest draw, but the emergence of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott only made things better for the networks that had their games.
The primetime numbers rebounded a little bit after the election. This is what the ratings picture looked like at the end of the season:
"Prime-time broadcasts were the most affected. ESPN’s Monday Night Football (17 games) and NBC’s Sunday Night Football (19 games, including two Thursdays), the two most costly rights deals, were down 12 and 10 percent, respectively, in total viewers. Daytime games on Fox and CBS, which each broadcast 27 games, were down 6 and 7 percent, respectively, in total viewers."
ESPN pays $1.9 billion per year for NFL rights. The caveat to this is that they get around-the-clock highlights rights on all of their TV and digital tentacles, but it’s also $800-900 million more than NBC, CBS, and Fox each pay for their Sunday packages. The disparity only becomes more pronounced when you realize that those three can use flex scheduling to trade lemons for lemonade late in the season.
A major reason the NFL can get away with charging ESPN like this is because the MNF package is a big contributing factor in the $7+ per month ESPN charges per cable subscriber. Steve Bornstein was president of ESPN and later ABC before joining the NFL as a TV executive in 2003. When he was involved in putting together the current batch of network contracts, it’s safe to say he was acutely aware of what the deal was worth to ESPN. (Bornstein retired from NFL Network in 2014.)
Even given its value to and leverage over ESPN, however, the NFL has not been a very good partner the last two years. In the summer of 2015, in a piece alleging that ESPN asked Keith Olbermann to stop doing “commentary,” THR had sources who wondered if the lackluster MNF slate on the horizon was retaliaton for aggressive coverage during the Ray Rice ordeal:
"And while NFL schedulers have historically worked to spread marquee matchups among its TV partners, the upcoming MNF schedule is viewed as one pointedly lacking in high-interest games, with multiple sources inside ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., headquarters believing the “terrible” schedule is “pay back for Simmons and Olbermann,” as one source put it."
According to the Washington Post, that schedule that THR said was “pointedly lacking in high-interest games” included five games between teams that had made the playoffs the year before. As we’ve mentioned, last year’s slate featured just three. Outwardly, ESPN executives do not express disappointment with the arrangement.
Of course, no one can predict exactly who will be good and who won’t going into a season, but it’s a legitimate question to wonder what this year’s Monday Night Football schedule will look like. How many times will ESPN get the Cowboys? What about the rare showdowns between elite quarterbacks?