ESPN primed to pump football Disney dollars provide prime-time monopoly for cable giant, partner ABC

September 04, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

For a supposedly conservative company, Disney certainly knows how to upset the apple cart.

Not merely content to retain the rights to "Monday Night %J Football" for ABC, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner whipped out the corporate checkbook and seized the entire Sunday night cable package for ESPN, giving his company the exclusive franchise on prime-time football.

So, for the first time in seven years, since the NFL established a full season Sunday night telecast window, all the games will be in one place, rather than split between TNT and ESPN.

For ESPN producers and announcers, the five-year deal gives them a chance to further establish their brand on the telecast.

"At least every night of the week, we have NFL programming and I think a lot of that was spun by the fact that we have the full season," said senior NFL coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli. "We're going to take advantage and really try to become the unofficial NFL network."

That strategy has more than a programming component attached. In knocking Turner out of the box, ESPN bid a whopping $600 million a year for the Sunday night cable schedule, $50 million a year more than either ABC or Fox bid for their over-the-air packages, and $100 million more annually than CBS.

All the broadcast schedules will have significantly larger audiences than ESPN's, which would appear to make the cable giant's bid a piece of financial folly and place inordinate pressure on all who work on the NFL to make it work.

"It's terribly important to ESPN, to ABC and to Disney that we be successful and get high ratings and make money and all that kind of stuff," said play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick. "They [ESPN executives] don't try to exert pressure on us. You want to do the best possible job you can do. Nobody's standing over your shoulder, saying, 'You've got to do it this way.' That's why they hired us in the first place."

And ESPN, unlike the networks, has a dual revenue stream to help recoup its fee. The cable outlet makes money on commercials it airs, and has created more NFL programming, from a nightly news show on ESPN2 to an extra half-hour of its Sunday morning pre-game show, to get more ads and revenue in.

ESPN also receives subscriber fees from cable operators, and the theory that the more popular the programming it offers, the more it can charge the cable system, should work well as NFL games are the most popular programming on cable.

Not surprisingly, ESPN is charging its subscribers more -- as much as 20 percent more according to some reports -- and those costs inevitably will find their way into cable bills.

To help attract a larger audience, ESPN's other big change involves the addition of a third man to its booth, former NBC analyst Paul Maguire, to join Patrick and analyst Joe Theismann.

Maguire, a solid analyst with a wry sense of humor, is being added to bring a bit of levity to a football-heavy booth, Gaudelli said.

"There's no way we'll ever neglect football. That's how ESPN has made its name," Gaudelli said. "But if we can have some fun in the meantime and inform and entertain, that's what we're going to do this year. That's what Paul is going to enable us to do."

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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