The NFL formally renewed all of their TV contracts this week, and the amounts of money involved are staggering, even to people like me who are more or less immune to large amounts of money being tossed around in the sports world.
Starting in 2014, the NFL will rake in nearly $6 billion in annual TV rights fees. ESPN alone is going to pay $1.9 billion A YEAR to the NFL just for the right to broadcast Monday Night Football, which is an insane figure given how lousy the MNF schedule is. And that money doesn't even include the potential rights to a future wild card game, which the New York Times is saying the NFL could end up selling to ESPN for a cool $100 million each.
NBC swapped one of its wild-card playoff games, which the league will try to sell to ESPN for as much as $100 million each, for a divisional game that will probably earn a higher rating and sell at a higher rate to advertisers.
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I don't think anyone can fault the NFL for trying to squeeze out the maximum amount of revenue from these deals, and $100 million is nothing to sneeze at for one little game that could potentially involve a pair of crummy 9-7 teams. But the NFL would be making a mistake in letting ESPN broadcast playoff games. Here are three reasons why:
1) ESPN does a horrible job. This is first and foremost. "Monday Night Football" is consistently the most annoying football broadcast on TV each week. The game is usually terrible. The broadcast is overproduced. The pre- and postgame shows feature TWO insufferable anchors in Chris Berman and Stu Scott. And the in-game analysts, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski, are downright intolerable.
This is all fine when ESPN is showing a Rams/Seahawks game that you have no plans to actually watch. But I don't want these people in charge of a playoff game. Despite being the biggest name in sports, ESPN still manages to makes these games feel unimportant, like they're just another part of the ESPN signature blur of horrible programming. It feels like ESPN acquires rights fees merely as a way of feeding itself, and not because they actually care about the sports they're presenting.
2) Because it's only a matter of time before ESPN tries to get a Super Bowl. Letting ESPN have just one Wild Card game is a gateway drug to them trying to broadcast MORE playoff games in the future. That means more Jaws and Gruden. OR WORSE! It could mean Mike & Mike doing a divisional game, which would make me want to dunk my head in a vat of insecticide.
3) Because the NFL has succeeded by dominating the network TV landscape. This is the important part. I wrote about this last year, but it bears mentioning again. While every other league has essentially ghettoized itself by moving to cable, the NFL has stayed on broadcast TV and taken over the sports universe as a result.
I know ESPN is treated as a given in most American households, but the reality is that up to 25% of US households don't have cable. And in a lousy economy, you're likely to see more people dropping their cable package than adding to it. I have no doubt that ESPN will also try and pass on the cost of these fees to you, the cable customer. And that will, in turn, cause MORE people to forgo their cable box.
The great triumph of the NFL in this century has been the league's ability to get everyone to watch it. And while moving playoff games to ESPN doesn't seem like a big deal, it is. It's one step closer to phasing out millions of potential fans who won't pony up to watch the game on basic cable. I know this is an NBC site, which makes it sound like I'm shilling for the home team, but I'm not. TRUST ME. The NFL should keep the playoffs on broadcast TV.