ESPN Scores Big -- Broadcast Big

'Monday Night Football' Sets Cable Ratings Record, Challenges the Big Networks

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NEW YORK ( -- It's early in the season, but it looks like ESPN's $8.8 billion, eight-year investment in "Monday Night Fooball" is a big winner -- big enough, in fact, to make cable history. ESPN's contest between New Orleans and Atlanta (the first game at the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina) scored the second-highest cable rating ever after CNN's 1993 Al Gore/Ross Perot debate.
The game between the New Orleans Saints (with Reggie Bush, above) and Atlanta Falcons was cable's second-highest-rated program ever.
The game between the New Orleans Saints (with Reggie Bush, above) and Atlanta Falcons was cable's second-highest-rated program ever. Credit: Sean Gardner

Moreover, "Monday Night Football" is drawing outsized numbers for cable, averaging an 8.5 household rating in its first four weeks, according to a Magna Global analysis of Nielsen ratings. "We have a bona fide hit on our hands in Monday night on ESPN," crowed Ed Erhardt, ESPN president-consumer sales and marketing.

Not quite apples to apples
But the big question is just how to measure that success when there's no like comparison to last year, when ESPN aired football on Sunday night and ABC Sports aired "Monday Night Football." This year NBC airs Sunday night football games.

The 8.5 rating ESPN is averaging this year is up from the 6.5 average household rating ESPN got for the first four weeks of last year's Sunday night football matchups but down from the 10.7 rating ABC averaged during the first four weeks of "Monday Night Football" last year.

"You have to take a look at Sunday and Monday night in totality," said Jason Maltby, co-president-broadcast at MindShare. "We're averaging an 8.5 rating on Monday and an 11.5 on Sunday for a cumulative rating of 20 points. Last year the combination averaged only about 16 points, so it's a net positive in terms of viewership to the NFL."

Ratings expected to increase
Sam Sussman, senior VP, Starcom, said ESPN's ratings were expected to increase in the move from Sunday to Monday. And while ESPN's performance has exceeded his expectations, it's still down compared to last year's "Monday Night Football" on ABC. "It's the top-rated show on cable TV. But it's not pulling a 10.8 like it did last year," he said.

When ESPN announced it had bought "Monday Night Football" rights in April 2005, George Bodenhiemer, president of ABC Sports and ESPN, anticipated a lift but "it's premature to put any specific numbers on it," he said then.

ESPN is in just more than 92 million of the 111 U.S. TV households. But each game is also syndicated over the air in the markets of the teams that are playing, which can add anywhere from a half to a whole rating point, depending on the size of the markets.

Mr. Erhardt pointed out that ESPN's Sunday night ratings last year were 43% lower than ABC's Monday night ratings; this year, ESPN's Monday night ratings are only 12% behind NBC's Sunday night ratings.

"I've got 20 million fewer homes I can go into," he said. "So the fact we cut that spread like that would suggest there's something going on here." He cited everything from ESPN's "Is It Monday Yet?" marketing campaign to its NFL exclusivity on Monday.

NFL up overall
Of course, football ratings are up overall. Fox's national game average is up 11% to a 13.5 household rating. And, fueled by a huge Manning-vs.-Manning game to kick off the season, NBC is pacing 9% ahead of ABC's "Monday Night Football" viewing last year.

"In the first and last year of the contracts, the matchups seem to get better," said Larry Novenstern, exec VP-director of national electronic media, Optimedia.

According to Ad Age analysis, ESPN charged about $150,000 a spot on "Sunday Night Football" last year; this year it's charging about $200,000. ABC charged about $325,000 a spot last year. And, of course, ESPN sells advertisers into all the media it offers. Its multimedia "Monday Night Surround" is an online and on-air play that builds up "Monday Night Football" for the better part of the day.

It's hard to break out how much incremental revenue the off-air components have added to the bottom line, but it could be as much as 20% more revenue.
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