If you’re a regular NFL fan, Saturday’s wild-card game between the Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs probably doesn’t hold much interest. If you’re a fan of the business of the NFL, however, it is must-see TV, a high-stakes showdown that could help shift the balance of power among America’s sports broadcasters.
It’s a big deal because, one year after ratings for its first NFL playoff game failed to measure up, ESPN is going to be simulcasting Texans-Chiefs on ABC, its sister network, which is also owned by the Walt Disney Co. The move doesn’t just give ESPN the chance to draw more eyeballs to the game. It also lets it make the case that it should be considered a serious bidder for the lucrative "Thursday Night Football" package that’s currently up for grabs.
Conversely, if ESPN’s wild-card game attracts another subpar audience, a poor showing could potentially jeopardize ESPN’s long-term prospects as a playoff broadcaster.
“The NFL doesn’t want anything it does to be low-rated,” said Larry Mann, executive vice president of media and partner at sports advertising and marketing agency rEvolution. “If they deliver another bad number, it's going to raise some eyebrows.”
Worst Slate of Games
While ESPN is often regarded as an 800-pound gorilla in the world of sports, the Worldwide Leader gets treated very differently by the NFL. Partly because it cannot command the massive audiences of the broadcast networks, and partly because it has considerable highlight footage needs, ESPN pays far more for the rights to air NFL games than Fox, CBS or NBC, and in return it gets the worst slate of games.
Last year, when it got its first crack at televising an NFL playoff game, it got stuck with the least appetizing matchup: a game between the Carolina Panthers, who had won their division with a losing record, and the Arizona Cardinals, who were stuck playing their backup quarterback.
Unsurprisingly, it was the least-watched wild-card matchup last year, drawing less than 22 million people. It wasn’t even the highest-rated NFL game in ESPN’s history.
This year, the network cannot afford another poor showing. Putting Saturday’s game on ABC at the same time greatly expands the potential audience. It may not guarantee a bump in viewers, but it at least gives a chance at one.
A Show of Strength
But if the game does wind up producing a ratings win, it also changes the narrative about what kind of partner ESPN can be. Last spring, when Saturday’s simulcast was first announced, ESPN made it clear that it would begin working more closely with some of its Disney-owned sister companies.
“You'll see us becoming a little more opportunistic with ABC,” ESPN President John Skipper said at the network’s upfronts, an annual presentation for advertisers in New York City. “We still do have one of the four big broadcast networks, and we're going to continue to take advantage of it."
While some of the promised collaborations failed to materialize, including one between “Mike & Mike” and “Good Morning America,” that synergy proved to be part of a larger trend for Disney in 2015. To promote the latest “Star Wars” sequel, Disney splashed it all over ESPN’s properties, including “Monday Night Football.” More recently, in the run-up to the College Football Playoff, ABC shoehorned mentions of those games into its programming every which way, including some strange references on “General Hospital” and a brief bit of cross-promotion on the kids' channel Disney Jr.
ESPN took a beating in the ratings with those games, which took place on New Year’s Eve. Indeed, it will be making up to College Football Playoff advertisers during Saturday’s game, according to one agency that worked with one of them; an ESPN spokesperson told International Business Times that the network does not comment on sell-outs or make-goods, saying that it is "very well sold" for Saturday's game.
But if the simulcast pulls in a monster audience this weekend, ESPN stops looking like a redheaded stepchild, and more like a partner that’s willing and able to leverage enormously powerful media partners to promote its sports programming.
“A really strong number on Saturday could open the NFL's eyes,” Mann said.
That’s of especial interest to the NFL because of a separate but related cable TV problem: The NFL has been trying to build the profile for its cable TV channel, the NFL Network, for more than a decade, and it has had a tough time. After several years of trying to lure people there with Thursday night games, the NFL stepped up its efforts by partnering with CBS in 2014. CBS got to air those games during the first half of the season, with the final eight airing on NFL Network.
Those games drew big audiences and made CBS a lot of money — CBS charged advertisers more than $547,000 per 30 seconds this season, according to Ad Age — but failed to elevate the NFL Network in a meaningful way. The Thursday night games on NFL Network averaged about 7 million viewers per contest, less than half the average audience for a "Monday Night Football" game, for example.
For its next deal, the NFL apparently wants someone who can do better. Anonymous sources told Sports Business Journal that the NFL wants its next broadcast partner to present a plan to grow the NFL Network, through promotional efforts and added reach.
Seeing ESPN, ABC and Disney all pull together could help tip those scales. "The NFL is an incredibly smart and calculated organization," said Brian Cristiano, the CEO of BOLD Worldwide, a sports marketing and advertising agency. "They know there's so much change ahead in the next five years [that] there has to be flexibility and innovation in the way that they hold onto these audiences."
It also wants its next broadcast partner to be deep-pocketed. The bidding will reportedly begin at $300 million. Even for ESPN, which has been dealing with a shrinking subscriber base, that is chump change. But if it wants its Thursday night proposals to be considered seriously by the NFL, it's going to need to deliver Saturday.
That's what will make Saturday's game so exciting for all the stakeholders involved. “It'll all be dependent on the quality of the game,” Mann said. “If it's a blowout, [the fact that it's] being simulcast is not going to draw.”