ABC’s Monday Night Football Play Is Not a Simple Cash Grab

Over the course of the last two weeks, a couple-three things happened in and around the Disney universe that slightly lowered the volume of the discourse about the fate of linear television.

First, Disney negotiated a new carriage deal with Charter Communications, a move that quieted much of the usual doomsaying that stalks the cable business like a pod of dolphins shadowing a shrimp trawler.

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Then, a few days after Disney’s signals were turned back on in 14.7 million U.S. homes, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro told attendees at the IMG Summit that linear TV remains the most potent weapon in the company’s arsenal. This isn’t lost on ESPN’s league partners. “If you were to talk to any commissioner, whether of a professional league or a conference, they’ll tell you they prioritize linear because of the exposure and the reach,” Pitaro said last week during his U.K. stopover. “I don’t see that changing, at least over the next several years.”

Pitaro had made his way back stateside by the time Disney revealed it would air 10 additional Monday Night Football games on the ABC broadcast flagship, bringing what amounts to a full-season slate of NFL simulcasts to over-the-air TV. In plugging a hole in ABC’s fall schedule, Disney not only expanded the reach of its NFL telecasts, but also gave its sales team an opportunity to incrementally boost in-game revenues.

There’s a pattern to be discerned here, especially as Pitaro and ESPN content chief Burke Magnus have begun their preliminary conversations with the NBA about the next rights cycle. (Pitaro said he and NBA commissioner Adam Silver see eye-to-eye on the future distribution mix, which will feature a “significant” direct-to-consumer element, before adding that the NBA “very much prioritizes its relationship with ABC.”)

All of which recontextualizes Disney CEO Bob Iger’s self-proclaimed itch to sell off ABC and its affiliate stations. If Disney isn’t abandoning linear TV, and since sports are the lifeblood of the medium, then a move to divest itself of the big-reach broadcast platform could be seen as an act of self-sabotage.

Since the new Charter pact extends through nearly the end of the decade and the NBA won’t officially fling open its incumbent-exclusive negotiating window until March 9, the ABC situation is perhaps best viewed through the lens of the immediate present. The Monday Night Football simulcasts won’t necessarily generate a ton of bonus ad bucks—more on that in a moment—but the synergistic interplay between ABC and ESPN suggests the two entities are more valuable together than they would be apart.

Such is the impression I get when speaking to Jim Minnich, senior VP of revenue and yield management for Disney’s advertising division. During a wide-ranging discussion on the MNF simulcasts, the sports ad sales market and the interplay of ESPN’s various linear-TV and digital platforms, Minnich regularly circles back to the benefits that accrue from delivering live games and shoulder programming across multiple distribution points. As each delivery system has unique capacities and serves a different demographic cohort, the cumulative effect of buying across platforms goes far beyond the mere amplification of reach.

The decision to expand the ABC simulcasts was made well after Minnich and his team had sold off much of the available MNF inventory—by the time the Bills and Jets kicked off the new season on Sept. 11, 90% of ESPN’s in-game units had been accounted for—so the shift should not be interpreted as a luxury tax on the primetime ad market.

“The reason for the decision to add the simulcasts was really to complete our commitment for our ABC broadcast schedule,” Minnich says. “There was an opportunity there, and it’s no more complicated than that.”

With the NFL occupying the Monday night block, ABC is now the only broadcaster that isn’t saddled with the task of filling in any primetime dead space with repeats—a strategy that’s only slightly more effective than airing a test pattern. Repeats do not rate.

That said, with 10% of all MNF spots still up for grabs, the simulcasts should provide a means for Disney to reap a decent windfall. “We’re in the market with several avails per game, and we’re out there selling,” Minnich says. “We’re riding high right now, we’re trying to be modest about it for sure, but we’re excited about the live experience we have lined up for fans and advertisers.”

ABC also has a number of standalone units that air during the intervals in which ESPN cedes airtime to its distribution partners, although those structural oddities are generally reserved for make-goods.

All told, the impact on MNF deliveries will be difficult to overlook. While the first of the bonus ABC games won’t air until Oct. 2, the Nielsen data for 2023 already looks promising. The cataclysmic Bills-Jets opener averaged 11.7 million viewers on ABC and another 11 million on ESPN and ESPN2, while the two-hour overlap for last week’s staggered cable (Saints-Panthers) and broadcast (Browns-Steelers) outings scared up 21.8 million fans, good for a 6% lift versus the analogous date in 2022.

Naturally, Minnich would’ve been happy to have had the chance to take full advantage of all those bonus Monday night impressions, but by the time the catalyzing writers’ strike kicked off on May 2, a significant chunk of MNF inventory had already been sold. “We don’t hold anything back, we just sell as the market develops, so the folks who already bought into Monday night on ESPN are getting the full benefit of the simulcasts,” he says.

Of course, there’s no template to follow in this sort of scenario. “TV is hard to predict,” Minnich says. “I’m not qualified to speculate on when the strike may end, and who would’ve been able to predict that Aaron Rodgers would get hurt after 75 seconds?” As a Jets fan, Minnich says the latter variable has been a particularly unwelcome development; in terms of the things he can control, however, he can’t complain.

“We’re off to a really good start to fiscal ’24,” he says, before momentarily hyper-spacing his way to the not-so-far-off date that is February 2027. Under the terms of Disney’s new NFL deal, ABC will be hosting the Super Bowl for the first time since 2006, provided Iger doesn’t yank the football away at the last moment. And yes, Minnich is already thinking about shifting those big units. “You have to plan for that in a long-range manner,” he says. “You can’t just wake up in January of ’26 and say, ‘Let’s do this.’”

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