Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN unit this season will air a smattering of Tuesday and Friday prime-time college games to go with regular Thursday night and Saturday action. That's in addition to National Football League games airing Sunday and Monday nights on ESPN and ABC, and Saturday's dozen or so weekly matches on ABC, CBS, NBC, ESPN, Fox and syndicated outlets running nearly all day. That leaves Wednesday as the sole night viewers won't see blocking and tackling.
Overall, ESPN and ESPN2 will show a combined 91 regular-season games, up 23% from last year. Sibling ABC, too, will increase its college football time slots from 27 to 30 and has a new six-year deal with the Big East Conference. And ESPN will expand perhaps its most valuable college football franchise "ESPN College GameDay" from 60 to 90 minutes on Saturday morning.
The question is whether Disney, which shelled out $9.4 billion four years ago for its eight-year NFL rights deal, is serving up too big a helping. If it's offering a buffet of college football during the week and again on Saturday, will viewers hunger for its more expensive NFL games the next two nights?
STAKES ARE HIGH
For advertisers, the stakes are high. They spent an estimated $2.3 billion on all broadcast and cable football games last year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.
"The sports world has changed so dramatically over the last few years and it's become so cluttered," said Kara Lazarus, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Cordiant Communications' Bates USA, New York. "We've seen what's happened to baseball."
Ratings for Major League Baseball and the NBA have declined, partly due to audience fragmentation, but also because fans have grown tired of the glut of games. In the post-season, ratings for last year's World Series, which did feature two New York teams, were the worst ever, while the NBA Finals have seen a severe drop-off since Michael Jordan retired for the second time in 1998. NFL ratings are already stumbling. Last year, the average regular season broadcast game brought a 10.7 rating, or 15.7 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from an 11.3 rating and 16.6 million homes the year before.
ESPN believes it can sustain interest. "There's a lot crossover between NFL and college fans obviously, but football is unique," said John Wildhack, ESPN's senior VP-programming. "Teams are playing 11 college games and 16 NFL games. There's so much at stake each week so the fan is there."
At Viacom's CBS-a network with a heavy investment in the NFL that also just signed a new eight-year deal with the Southeastern Conference to run college games on Saturdays-ESPN's weeknight expansion has drawn attention, but not panic. "I don't think the impact is going to be major, but it bears watching," said Mike Aresco, CBS Sports senior VP-programming. "You're going to see a lot of football during the week that you didn't have before, but the way [college] football is structured the weekend games are the most important."
An NFL spokesman, Greg Aiello, declined comment on the impact of ESPN's college schedule on his league. "That's their decision," he said. "That's their business."
ESPN has largely sold the weeknight games as part of package deals; advertisers rarely buy them specifically. Discover made a two-year, $20 million pact. A $10 million Monster.com deal features a joint sports jobs search site on ESPN.com, while Circuit City takes on title sponsorship of the Thursday night game and other promotions.
The network's view is that in these days of cross-media deals, ratings won't matter as much. "If we're creating marketing links that travel across all of our mediums that will connect with fans, the notion of what the rating will be on a given game becomes less an issue," said Ed Ehrhardt, president-sales and marketing for ESPN/ABC Sports.
Even if ratings are down, media buyers feel ESPN is largely a must-buy in pursuit of men 18-34. "Men are difficult to find," said Bates' Ms. Lazarus. "You can't ignore ESPN."
Still, will underwhelming games such as the Tuesday, Nov. 6 Western Michigan vs. Toledo match draw an audience? "We're going to find out if there's an audience for college football on Tuesday night," said Neil Pilson, former head of CBS Sports. "If nobody watches, they'll abandon the idea."