ESPN losing NFL playoff rights could be good for league, ESPN and Fox

There are rumors swirling that Fox will get an extra playoff game thanks to their five-year $3.3 billion Thursday Night Football television rights deal. It seems like the obvious company to give up the rights to a wildcard game would be ESPN. This sounds like a huge blow to the worldwide leader, but it may actually be beneficial for all parties involved.

ESPN pays $1.9 billion annually for Monday Night Football rights. Things haven’t exactly been going well for a while now. Monday Night Football actually hit a low-point this year. The quality of the games have been poor, and people cord cutting and moving on from cable packages has limited the audience size ESPN can pull in. The folks in Bristol tried to counter some of the limits to their reach by simulcasting the game on ABC, but that still didn’t help this year.

Simply put, ESPN gets saddled with the worst game of the first Saturday. ESPN gets the game that no one wants, while NBC gets the primetime matchup on Saturday night. It’s the cards ESPN have been dealt. There’s no changing the situation. They invest a hefty amount to televise the game — rights fees, talent, production etc. — and aren’t getting the return necessary. Factor in that ESPN is still looking to cut costs and losing the NFL playoffs may not be as huge of a blow as its made out to be. Sure, ESPN would lose some prestige, but there’s not much prestige watching Brock Osweiler facing off against Connor Cook — an actual playoff game we all had to sit through — isn’t exactly prestigious anyways. It doesn’t make sense to throw good money after bad if ESPN knows its always getting the short end of the stick when it comes to playoff matchups.

Fox gets another playoff game, which they probably deserve since they theoretically overpaid — they reportedly outbid NBC and CBS by a wide margin — for the Thursday Night Football package. Fox saves ESPN money and Fox needs to be more concerned about prestige right now. They shed — or are trying to shed — most of their properties outside of their core broadcast, news and sports networks. Fox needs to plant their flag somewhere. They need to spend the money they are getting from divesting their assets somewhere. There’s no better place to spend money than the NFL due to its comparative draw even when the ratings dip is taken into account. ESPN loses money on their playoff game, but in Fox’s case, losing money is less important than confirming their spot in the sports media landscape.

As for the NFL, they will continue to rake in the money. The league can pitch the change as a service for both ESPN and Fox. ESPN was always a weird partner for a playoff game since they don’t ever get to host a Super Bowl anyway. It was one game on ESPN/ABC and then that’s it. Bringing the game to Fox allows for viewership continuity and is simply less confusing.

So everyone wins here. ESPN sheds an expensive property that they weren’t making money on. This signals to Disney shareholders that they are serious about cutting costs and focusing on new ways to extend their profitability. Fox confirms its position in the sports media landscape and they are already paying a ton for a lower tier property than Sunday Night and Monday Night Football. The NFL gets their money, and makes it easier on their fans.

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