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NFL's rights might
Despite shift of Monday Night Football to ESPN, new deals show free TV football here to stay.
April 22, 2005: 4:17 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - For those who hate the shift of sports from free broadcast to pay television, this week was definitely good news/bad news time.

Monday Night Football, the American institution that made the NFL a prime time sport 36 years ago, will move from ABC to its cable sister ESPN for the 2006 season.

Somewhere, Howard Cosell is no doubt droning on about how the change represents the end of civilization as we know it.

Meanwhile, NBC, a conscientious objector in most of the sports rights fee wars of recent years, re-enlisted for battle. It signed a $600 million a year deal to take over the Sunday Night Football package that has been on ESPN since 1987.

The dual announcements are a sign that the big dollars are more than ever flowing from the world of pay television, where subscriber fees supplement the single-source of advertising dollars that networks rely upon.

In fact, the Monday Night Football deal costs ESPN's owner, Walt Disney Co. (Research), almost twice as much as the NBC deal. The NFL's agreement with DirecTV (Research) to provide out-of-market games also brings in more than that NBC contract.

But the fact that NBC is back in the game is a sign that top-tier sports events are still crucial to broadcasters.

"This is going to be a profitable transaction," NBC Universal CEO Robert Wright insists. "This one we could afford on a modest budget."

But at a February analysts conference, Wright had said that if the rights fee for football reached as high as $450 million a year, a broadcast network would only be able to break even. He suggested that NBC's General Electric (Research) parent would not agree to a deal that would produce nine-figure losses.

NBC losses are NFL's gain

NBC, once the No. 1 network in ratings, has fallen to No. 4 among viewers 18 to 49 years old, the viewers most valuable to advertisers. Even if it loses money, the Sunday night package is important to promoting NBC shows to an audience that's now ignoring the network.

"It's a big win in their efforts to remain competitive," said industry analyst Jack Myers. "When you're No. 3 in prime time, you're looking at a whole bunch of different needs and issues than when you're No. 1."

The franchise, whatever its value now, could grow more valuable between now and 2011 when it expires, as more and more households get the digital video recorders that allows them to easily record programming and skip through commercials.

Sports is not immune to such skipping, but its advertisers are less at risk. TiVo's statistics show that fewer than 10 percent of customers who watch Monday Night Football were watching a recording of the games, compared to about 60 percent who watch sitcoms.

ESPN insists it's not overpaying for the rights deal, even though it will double what ABC is paying in the current deal. While it won't have to depend on only advertising dollars to cover that fee, executives admit it won't see any big jump in subscriber fees or households.

In fact, ESPN's ratings are even likely to see some decline from ABC's already depressed Monday Night Football numbers, since the games are no longer available in the estimated 18 percent of U.S. homes that don't have cable or satellite TV.

ESPN officials say they don't expect a massive drop, though. Spokeswoman Diane Lamb says that about 90 percent of Monday Night Football viewers also have ESPN.

"It seems almost inevitable that there is some fall off from broadcast to cable, but whether it's anything meaningful is a big question," said Myers. "Advertisers going into the season will probably estimate it pretty close to ABC's last year numbers."

The biggest loss to the ESPN/ABC Sports empire is that it will no longer be in the rotation for Super Bowl games, the most lucrative day of television during the year.

Lamb said ESPN is looking past just MNF.

The deal includes such non-traditional rights as wireless broadcasts, Spanish language broadcasts, fantasy and video game rights, data feed platforms and more. ESPN is counting on the fact that cable boxes might seem as quaint as rabbit-ear antennas by the time the new MNF deal ends in 2013.

"Who knows what that'll be worth then," she said. "People are already watching highlights and listening to things on cell phones that couldn't be imagined a few years ago."

Clearly, the broadcast rights are not as valuable to either the networks or their broadcast partners as they once were.

ABC didn't even make a bid for the Sunday night package, not wanting to disturb a hit show, "Desperate Housewives" -- which by 2011, could be a distant a memory as this year's draft picks.

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