When ESPN announced its new "Monday Night Football" deal with the NFL Thursday, it locked up one of the marquee franchises in not just sports, but all of broadcasting, for another eight years.
The deal is but the latest step in what Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, authors of the ESPN oral history, dubbed ESPN’s "rise to world dominance."
Since ESPN first shocked the world by taking over "Monday Night Football" from its sibling broadcast network, ABC, in 2006, it has gradually begun to challenge the Big Four networks for the sports world’s top prizes.
The big question: How long will it take for ESPN to claim the biggest TV sporting events, like the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the World Series and the NBA Finals?
ESPN already claimed Wimbledon, the world’s oldest tennis tournament, this summer. The Bowl Championship Series, which features the college football title game and the most lucrative bowl games, joined the ESPN family in January.
“We have clearly been able and successful at acquiring some very very marquee properties exclusively for ESPN,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s Executive Vice President, Programming Acquisitions & Strategy. “We think that can be a driver for us as a company.”
But conspicuously absent from ESPN’s new “Monday Night Football” deal is any mention of the Super Bowl or playoffs. Instead, the NFL has the option of giving ESPN a wild card game, which is in the first round.
There are other such agreements that leave ESPN on the doorstep of the broadcasting penthouse, but not quite inside. It airs the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, but not the NBA Finals. It carries parts of the Masters, but not the final round.
But as long as CBS, NBC and Fox own the Super Bowl, NBC has the Olympics, ABC has the NBA Finals and Fox has the World Series, can ESPN call itself the national leader in sports?
That depends on whom you ask.
The biggest event ESPN missed out on recently was the Olympics, a major source of prestige and potential profit, but NBC edged the network with a hefty $4.3 billion bid.
“What’s happened the last few Olympics and with other major events programming has been ESPN will go harder than anyone but the single person who really desperately wants to have this,” said Dan Durbin, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication. “They will win a number of things but generally lose to the one fanatic out there who will hold onto that.”
Wildhack said that ESPN employs a “selective strategy” and when it came to the Olympics, ESPN simply decided to pass. Other industry insiders corroborated that account.
Wildhack’s use of the term “pass” speaks to two things.
ESPN has the money to bid with anyone and ESPN wants most or all of those events — but at the right price.
That is a far cry from ESPN’s early years, when it programmed niche sports and re-runs of the more popular sporting events.
The channel has since become a seemingly unstoppable sports media empire, so much so that fellow Disney subsidiary ABC is considered secondary by many industry insiders.
“One of things they’ve been trying to do is brand everything in sports ESPN,” Durbin said. “They’ve been attempting to get all the big events.”
But how soon can that happen? One thing standing in ESPN's way when it comes to an event like the Super Bowl is the “eyeball problem.”
Though ESPN reaches 100 million homes, it still does not reach as many households as any of the networks, which some feel limits ESPN from being an equal to the broadcast networks.
“I don’t think we're that far away from a day when the Super Bowl is on ESPN or the NBA Finals are on ESPN," said David Campanelli, Senior Vice President and Director of National TV for Horizon Media. "But there is still that ‘broadcast is bigger, can drive bigger ratings, bigger viability’ attitude.”
But Wildhack rejected that idea.
“Now there is a recognition that we’re at parity with any platform,” he said. “Again, if you ask anybody under the age of 40 what’s the difference between broadcast and cable, they will look at you like just landed from Mars.”
Whether or not ESPN has achieved true parity, it continues to add to its war chest in what is an incremental process.
Projections as to when ESPN could get the Super Bowl differ, ranging from a few years to 10-15, but there is also a second question: does ESPN need any of these events?
From a revenue standpoint, it would appear not. From a prestige standpoint, that is another matter.
"Do they need [the Super Bowl]? I don’t know, but I think to them having the Super Bowl would be like the most incredible thing in the world form a prestige standpoint if nothing else,” Campanelli said.
Again, ESPN’s new NFL deal does not bring the Super Bowl to the network, or even a conference championship. So, again, what gives?
ESPN is wary of divulging any details about its future plans. George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports, avoided the question several times in a conference call with reporters Thursday morning. His most substantial commitment was the following: “We are always looking to improve our product. Never say never.”
In a separate interview he used the phrase, “I can’t reveal our strategy,” three times.
How long it takes ESPN to finally secure some of these rights will be determined on a case-by-case basis, as there is too much money and too many politics involved for the company to just come in and take over everything.
But even if ESPN seems to have made only minimal progress when it comes to the NFL playoffs in this latest deal, we have entered the phase of not if, but when, ESPN owns events like the Olympics and, yes, the Super Bowl.
“To become what they really want to be, which is the single name in sports — just like the iPad is the single name in tablets — ESPN really wants to be that with sports," Durbin said, "and so they are willing to go beyond what they really need to do it.”