Monday Nights Shine for ESPN

NEW YORK With a quarter of the 2006-07 National Football League schedule in the books, ESPN appears to have made good on its $8.8 billion gambit to bring the hallowed Monday Night Football franchise to cable.

Over the course of six games—ESPN kicked off its stewardship on Sept. 11 with a regional doubleheader slate split between the AFC and the NFC—the network is averaging 12.9 million total viewers and 7.1 million adults 18-49, making it the No. 1 network on Monday nights in the demo and putting the lie to the notion that the prime-time pigskin audience would plummet outside of broadcast’s protective halo.

Indeed, early forecasts of a loss of a quarter or more of MNF‘s viewers have proved to be ill conceived. Compared to the 15.1 million total viewers ABC averaged with its final season of MNF over the comparable time period, the show is down just 15 percent, a trifle when ESPN’s reach is factored in. (The net reaches 92.2 million households, or just about 84 percent of all U.S. TV homes.)

As expected, ESPN’s early success has made MNF a must-have for its ad clients, and inventory is “all but sold out,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Sports customer marketing and sales. Moreover, the network is outpacing its sellout rate of a year ago. “We were in the low-90 percent range at this point last year with our Sunday Night Football inventory,” Erhardt said.

Ed Gentner, senior vp and group director, MediaVest USA, said what’s different this year is that MNF doesn’t call for ESPN to have to do business with a divergent client roster. “When ABC sold MNF, they had a different advertiser profile for those games than they did for the rest of their schedule,” Gentner said. “With ESPN, it’s almost like they’re working with a pure client base. The viewers who come to MNF are the same people who are watching their other programming.”

Another new factor is the amount of MNF inventory ESPN has up for sale. Because ESPN enjoys a second revenue stream from its carriage fees, the NFL puts a ceiling on its national avails, limiting it to 43 in-game spots versus the 60 to 65 opportunities broadcast enjoys. The remainder goes to the operators, which sell their parcel as local avails.

As Erhardt noted, ESPN conformed to the same strategy last year, selling 43 avails on Sunday nights, while ABC Sports sold the requisite 60-65 in-game spots on Monday nights. “I’m selling both nights, so in the bigger picture, our inventory hasn’t changed,” Erhardt said. That notwithstanding, ESPN has also been able to add virtual inventory around the MNF games themselves as part of its “surround” strategy. It begins teasing the game of the week beginning at 3 p.m. Monday with a special two-hour edition of SportsCenter, which in turn leads into another three-and-a-half hours of pre-game content.

The network is also spreading the wealth to its non-linear properties, inking deals that incorporate, ESPN Radio, ESPN: The Magazine and podcasts. Just days before the regular season began, ESPN said it had cut a multiplatform deal with Wal-Mart, marking the retailer’s largest sports buy to date.

“Wal-Mart had never really bought the NFL before, so their committing to Monday nights is big,” Erhardt said. Designed to highlight Wal-Mart’s selection of high-definition TV models, the deal attaches the retailer’s HDTV messaging to the SportsCenter “Pump Up the Volume” football highlights segment and NFL Countdown‘s “Soundtracks” feature. Wal-Mart will also pitch its HDTV sets on ESPN’s digital platforms.

Presenting sponsors include Toyota/Lexus, which underwrites the MNF halftime show, and General Motors, which has undertaken its largest promotion to date with “Keys to Victory,” a campaign supporting the launch of its 2007 Sierra pickup. The GMC brand and the Sierra are featured prominently throughout MNF‘s opening montage and both appear in a co-branded spot produced by ESPN to promote the Monday night game.

Besides automotive and beer, Erhardt said that financial services have been particularly active on MNF, as have wireless and consumer electronics.

According to a consensus of media buyers, ESPN commands [about] $200,000 for each of its 30-second spots on Monday nights. By comparison, as the only other network that boasts an exclusive prime-time game, NBC is said to be averaging anywhere from $350,000 to $400,000 per spot during its Sunday night pre-game show Football Night in America and the game itself.

Being the only game in town isn’t the only factor heating up ESPN’s fall. Larry Novenstern, executive vp, director of national electronic media, Optimedia U.S., said MNF has been given a lift by major-market games: “So far, the only small-market game was the Steelers-Jaguars game [Sept. 18]. Historically, in the first year of a new contract, the NFL usually tries to give their partners a good schedule going in.”