As ESPN aired the 2012 season finale of “Monday Night Football” on Saturday night – which many claim is due to the fact that Christmas Eve falls on a Monday this year; yet, this did not stop the NFL from scheduling all but one game on Christmas Eve last year – there was talk that this would not be the last time ESPN would air an NFL game on a Saturday.
And it’s not because the NFL might schedule a Saturday night game again next year – people were already looking ahead to 2014.
At around this time last year, the NFL agreed to a new nine-year deal with its broadcast partners, effective 2014. A few months earlier, ESPN extended its own partnership with the NFL. At the time of the deal, a network spokesperson said the league may exercise “the option to air a postseason wild-card playoff game on ESPN” and that “no decision has been made.”
And that is still the case, but there’s word from somebody very close to ESPN that, starting in the 2014-15 season, one of the “Wild Card Weekend” games that have been airing on Saturdays on NBC will be broadcast on ESPN.
ESPN historian James Andrew Miller calculates that, on top of the $15.2 billion that the Worldwide Leader would be shelling out to the league for its nine-year deal, an estimated $100 million would be invested in wild card round playoff games, making ESPN’s annual payment to the NFL “a cool $2 billion per year.”
In addition to ESPN gaining an NFL playoff game in the wild card round, there’s speculation that NBC could gain as many as two playoff games in the divisional round. The second round format would have NBC either airing two games on Saturday, or just one, with CBS and Fox alternating the second divisional round playoff game on Saturday; CBS and Fox would still air one game apiece that Sunday, as has been the case during all three rounds leading up to the Super Bowl, and is expected to remain so as we enter the Soaring Twenties.
But the main point that should be taken away from this post is that it’s all but a done deal (and once again, nothing is official at this time) that ESPN will get into the playoff picture, as far as NFL broadcasts are concerned.
The big question is, once this new playoff broadcasting format is in place, will the playoff games being broadcast on ESPN be available exclusively on ESPN, and not simulcast on broadcast channels in markets of the teams involved in the games, as has been the case during regular season matchups over the last quarter century? Since this practice can only maximize ratings, there’s no reason to think it would be discontinued for the wild card games.
Then again, ESPN has become the exclusive broadcasting home of bowl games that once graced analog television screens every New Year’s Day.
If this can happen on the college ranks, there’s no reason it can be ruled out on the professional level.
It should be a given that the current “Monday Night Football” booth of Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden (assuming he’s still there) will work ESPN’s new wild card game.
But consider Chris Berman, who recently signed a “multiyear deal” with ESPN, expected to expire in 2018. Also consider that, right around that time, he (and Trent Dilfer) were assigned to work the second game of the opening-week “Monday Night Football” doubleheader this year. It would be a blessing in disguise that NFL playoff games called by Chris Berman are restricted to cable television in the first place, but I think if ESPN gets only one NFL playoff game, it’ll likely be worked by the “MNF” announcing crew.
It would be reasonable for NFL to go public with ESPN’s “playoff berth” at the conclusion of the current NFL broadcasting deal, but I would expect the NFL to make an official announcement on the playoff broadcasting realignment sometime in 2013, perhaps as early as the annual NFL Spring Meeting, or as late as Christmas.