Monday Night Football is in trouble.
Okay, not exactly. ESPN’s biggest prize still owns cable television on Monday nights, but there’s reason for worry. Monday Night Football, which ESPN pays $1.9 billion for annually, has lower ratings than any other prime time NFL programming. Even the much-maligned Thursday Night Football is beating Howard Cosell’s old stamping ground.
Two weeks ago, when Monday Night Football’s ratings dropped, the two contestants were the Bears and Chargers, teams that, quite frankly, aren’t playing for anything. Last week, the Texans, who came in at 3-5 , took on the Bengals, who came in undefeated. Even though Houston was able to pull off an upset in one of the more surprising outcomes of the season, the game itself was tough to watch, with a final score of 10-6. And it doesn’t get better from here.
After the upcoming Bills-Patriots game, all four of the next Monday Night Football games feature a team with a losing record. Three of those games feature two teams with a losing record. If Sunday Night Football, the NFL’s biggest draw, had this problem, there would be a simple solution: Flex those games out.
Except Monday Night Football can’t do that. NBC is the only network that can flex games in and out of its time slot, something that has become a valuable virtue for scenarios just like the one ESPN finds itself in right now. Though flex scheduling was something that NBC paid exclusively for, it’s something ESPN should try and work into its next deal with the NFL. After all, ESPN pays more than any other network, and Monday Night Football is supposed to be iconic. Watching the Browns and Ravens battle for a top-5 pick is the opposite of that.
Issues would arise with flexing Monday games. First, it would be a logistical nightmare. Moving games from one day to the next won’t make teams happy; it isn’t as if the games are just moved to a different time slot. Coaches plan practices and film sessions around which day the team is playing, not which hour. Teams would have to be informed multiple weeks in advance.
The second challenge is the NFL’s flexing rules, which are as complicated as the rules defining a catch. Teams can only have five prime time games, but can be flexed into a sixth, meaning that if the Panthers already have five games, there is only one flex option. The big name/market teams are usually already scheduled for five prime time games, limiting movement. The game must also be scheduled for late afternoon, meaning it is less likely for an East Coast game to be flexed. Finally, CBS and Fox can block certain games from being flexed.
However, ESPN deserves some benefit for its hefty rights fees. If NBC wants priority in flex weeks, sure, give it to them. Put Monday Night Football under the same rules that NBC is under and let Sunday Night Football have priority if they both want to flex a game in the same week. Monday Night Football cannot continue like this if it wants ratings success. If Sunday Night Football is the NFL’s marquee game, then Monday Night Football should be the encore. Allowing ESPN to flex games would let it be exactly that.