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NBC Gets Sunday Night; ESPN Takes Monday

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NEW YORK ( -- The National Football League's Sunday and Monday night football rights have been acquired by NBC and ESPN, the organizations announced last night. The total value of the TV deals is estimated at $12.5 billion.
'Monday Night Football' is more valuable than 'Sunday Night Football' because it draws a larger audience. NBC hopes to change that.

In a reconfiguration that broadens the league's audience, NBC acquired the rights to Sunday Night Football, which ESPN had the rights to, and ESPN will air Monday Night Football, which had previously been owned by corporate sibling ABC.

The NBC broadcast package is worth $3.6 billion or $600 million a year for six years, according to an executive close to the NFL. The ESPN cable deal for Monday night Football is valued at $8.9 billion over eight years.

Monday more valuable
Monday Night Football carries a higher price tag because the 35-year-old franchise is widely viewed as "appointment TV" for sports fans. NBC, which is owned by General Electric Co., hopes to build the Sunday package into a comparable event, leveraging its wider, broadcast distribution to grow viewership.

The ESPN deal includes rights to 17 regular-season games plus rights across a wide variety of ESPN's cable outlets and programming, including NFL PrimeTime; the NFL draft, which ESPN has covered since 1980; NFL Live; ESPN HD; ESPN Deportes; NFL Films programming; fantasy football leagues; ESPN Mobile; video games; and data feed platforms.

Two Super Bowls
While the ESPN agreement for Monday Night Football had been expected, NBC's move was more of a surprise. NBC has not aired an NFL game for the past six years, saying in recent years that it wanted out of the escalating pricing wars in sports rights. The deal between NBC and the NFL includes a four-hour network broadcast on Sunday nights and brings two Super Bowls, in 2009 and 2012, to the network.

The agreement also gives NBC new leverage with TV buyers in this year's upfront ad-sales negotiations, given the network's weakness in its prime-time schedule. Speaking on a conference call with the press last night, NBC Universal's TV group president, Jeffrey Zucker, said: "This package had never been available to any [broadcast network]. When it became clear there were four hours of prime time on Sunday night, and that wouldn't affect our late-night franchise, it obviously piqued our interest and made us excited about a brand new proposition."

Mr. Zucker said the company did not do the deal to aide the network's prime-time performance, but, he added, "There's no question there will be a promotional base that will exist on Sunday that is greater than what we've had."

NBC said it leapt into the bidding late last year because of the NFL's flexibility. NBC is also believed to have negotiated earlier start times for games in order to capitalize on the availability of West Coast audiences.

'This one we can afford'
When asked whether it would be profitable, NBC Universal's chairman-CEO, Bob Wright, said, "This one we can afford." He would not comment on questions as to whether NBC affiliates would be asked to chip in for the costs.

ESPN, whose parent is Walt Disney Co., will start airing Monday Night Football in 2006; however, as a cable network, ESPN will not get the Super Bowl, and it loses the rights to the NFL's postseason all-star game, the Pro Bowl.

Drain on ABC
Monday Night Football has been a loss leader for ABC, draining a reported $100 million to $150 million a year thanks to its annual $550 million price tag. "Retaining Monday Night Football didn't make smart financial sense for ABC," George Bodenheimer, president of ABC Sports and ESPN, said. "We couldn't reconcile the fees against the revenues and that's when we decided the best decision for our company was to move this property to ESPN."

Plus, said Mark Shapiro, executive vice president for programming and production at ESPN, "you can launch a [network] show in September and can carry a show through the season, unlike with Monday Night Football, which has always forced you to rebuild [your prime-time schedule] mid-season."

There were several rumors that ABC, which hosts Super Bowl XL, would swap ESPN for the Sunday Night Football package, Mr. Bodenheimer, insisted ABC never had discussions with the NFL about Sunday night rights.

Kept it in the family
By shifting the package to ESPN, ABC not only kept Monday Night Football in the family -- ABC Sports and ESPN's advertising are sold together -- but also gave the ESPN arguably the NFL's biggest brand, around which it can wrap the rest of the week's lineup.

ESPN will, however, face challenges in growing the Monday Night Football audience, which has been on the decline for the last half-dozen years. ESPN executives promise it will use all its assets to boost the game's visibility, including cross-programming countdowns to Monday night and producing a 90-minute pre-game show that will air live, on-site, from wherever that week's game happens to be.

"It will be the road show it once was," Mr. Bodenheimer said. "We expect a lift but it's premature to put any specific numbers on it." Despite Monday Night Football's costs, Messrs. Shapiro and Bodenheimer said they expected ESPN to continue to deliver double-digit growth to Walt Disney over next five years.

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