Monday Night Football ratings were down again, and the NFL and ESPN need to hope this is a blip on the radar and not an outright trend. The problem is every prime time game — Sunday and Monday night — has been down on year over year comparison, but ESPN and MNF have the biggest chance to really see a drop in ratings. That is because MNF is the only marquee game strictly on cable, and the games look less compelling than what is offered on Sunday night.
There was some talk last year that the NFL punished ESPN for Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons’ attacks on the league and Commissioner Goodell. That was 2015. The 2016 slate is not much more compelling. Out of the 17 MNF games only four games seem to have big markets vs. playoff teams or playoff teams vs. playoff teams. Last year’s horrible lineup may have scared the casual fan away. This year’s lineup doesn’t draw any of those casual fans back and may even lose normal MNF viewers.
The real issue for MNF is that it is the only true cable game for the NFL. Thursday Night has simulcasts on broadcast and Twitter. MNF has ESPN, and watch ESPN which is behind the paywall. Cord Cutters who decided to pick up streaming options without ESPN won’t be casually tuning in. They don’t even have the option. That means millennials that are cord cutters or cord nevers simply aren’t watching on Monday nights.
That is a problem. It’s a trend that really can’t be combated by the NFL or ESPN. ESPN is paying $ 15 billion — yes with a B — for Monday Night Football rights until 2021. If this trend continues this year and looks like a downward trend moving forward there aren’t many options that can save the deal. Theoretically ESPN could move MNF to ABC with its ESPN on ABC option, but at what point does that make sense for the company. ESPN already charges the highest subscription fee to cable companies. Moving a marquee piece of content to free broadcast network ABC makes it less compelling to pay those high sub-fees.
ESPN is in a bad spot if these ratings drop continue. They have clauses in contracts with their media partners. They have to hit a certain amount of viewers to make it worth buying expensive ad space. Mike Tirico leaving MNF and ESPN for NBC isn’t the cause of ratings drops. The cause is simple, the market is trending in a certain direction and there is no stopping the momentum. Either ESPN has to beg for some of the best games or Monday Night Football needs to change as currently constituted.