Eleven years ago, Monday Night Football moved from broadcast to cable and Sunday Night Football moved from cable to broadcast and Sunday Night Football, by virtue of the bigger weekly platform, became Monday Night Football. Monday Night Football now hopes to make itself more like the Monday Night Football of old.
Via SportsBusiness Daily, ESPN executive V.P. of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus said Wednesday at the 2017 CAA World Congress of Sports that the network has been politicking for a better slate of games for the coming season.
“We have high expectations because we’ve been as engaged with the league as we ever have been in terms of what the results are going to be,” Magnus said. “We’ve done everything we can possibly do to communicate with the league and guide them in terms of our preferences, and now we’ll see.”
The effort to improve the schedule underscores the challenges ESPN currently faces. In past years, before tens of thousands of people who were paying the monthly subscription fee for the multiple versions of the four-letter network without ever watching any of them cut the cord on cable, the quality of the NFL contests wasn’t an issue. Now, the network needs better matchups in order to lure customers back to the product, regardless of how they pay for it.
Here’s the problem: The NFL schedule is a zero-sum game. With 256 finite matchups, the league will have to rob CBS/FOX/NBC to pay ESPN. And CBS/FOX/NBC won’t like that.
The league won’t like it, either. In addition to the billions of dollars that come from TV deals, televising football amounts to the most effective promotion of the NFL’s product. And the league understands that it makes much more sense to put the better matchups in the spots that will generate the biggest audiences.
And that’s not me politicking for a better schedule for NBC (as if the league office would ever listen to me, on that point or anything else). The 2017 schedule is locked and loaded and ready to be unveiled on Thursday night. Nothing anyone says publicly at this point will change it.
The real question is whether the things said privately by ESPN over the past several weeks and months had an impact. Unless the NFL has decided to put games that could generate much bigger ratings via broadcast TV on a shrinking cable platform, it would be a surprise if anything changes.