While Disney’s stewardship of January’s inaugural Monday playoff was a foregone conclusion given the 51-year-old brand association with the night in question, the extended commitment to the new format will keep the game in the ESPN/ABC family through 2025.
Financial terms were not disclosed.
In addition to assuming the rights to the NFL’s only standalone postseason broadcast, the Disney nets should enjoy a considerable upgrade in terms of the matchup that will fall their way. Since ESPN carried its very first Wild Card Game back in 2014, it has been saddled with the weekend’s least desirable pairing. The impact that had on the network’s postseason ratings is not hard to spot.
While CBS, Fox and NBC reveled in hosting some of the NFL’s top national draws (Packers, Seahawks, Steelers, Giants, Saints), ESPN had to satisfy itself with the comparatively parochial charms of the Texans.
Four of Bristol’s seven Wild Card Games featured Houston, and each time ESPN/ABC carried one of these games, they delivered the weekend’s smallest TV audience. For example, the Chiefs’ 30-0 demolition of the Texans in 2016 averaged 25.4 million viewers, well shy of the 38.9 million viewers who tuned in for Fox’s Packers-Redskins showcase the following afternoon. A similar disparity was recorded in 2017, when Disney’s coverage of the Raiders-Texans Wild Card Game drew 25.1 million viewers, while Fox’s Sunday afternoon Giants-Packers production averaged 39.3 million viewers.
Disney finally got off the schneid last season, when it escaped from its customary early Saturday window and picked up the first Sunday Wild Card slot. The Ravens’ 20-13 victory over the Titans drew 24.8 million viewers across ESPN, ABC and the Freeform channel, besting the three Saturday matchups.
Part of the appeal of hosting the final playoff game of the weekend is that there’s virtually zero chance the NFL would elect to schedule the weakest of the six pairings to air in the final window—and in primetime, no less. In addition to wanting to protect the new glamour time slot, the league also will want to ensure that the winner of the Monday game won’t have to turn around and play on the following Saturday. Divisional Round play can be tough enough on a full week’s rest, but the prospect of squaring off against an opponent who may have sat out the Wild Card round and after just five days of recovery time is a non-starter.
While the weeknight playoff outing may seem to be a gamble from a ratings perspective, Monday trails only Sunday in terms of the overall number of people who are watching primetime television. Per Nielsen, the average size of the overall TV audience during Monday nights in January 2020 worked out to a sturdy 90.9 million viewers, second only to Sunday’s 95.7 million.
Disney gets its first crack at the new playoff format on Jan. 7. In addition to the meat-and-potatoes ESPN production and its ABC simulcast, the Monday Wild Card game also will get the ManningCast treatment. Of the first three alternative telecasts hosted by Eli and Peyton Manning, the biggest draw was the Sept. 27 Eagles-Cowboys edition, which averaged 1.89 million viewers on ESPN2. The Bros. Manning accounted for 13% of the week’s overall Monday Night Football deliveries.