King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Sunday night is the new Monday night in the NFL's latest TV deal. We may be in the dying days of NFL games being mostly broadcast for free.

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It’s all Dennis Miller’s fault.

Ask yourself: Would ABC have lost “Monday Night Football” if not for the failed Dennis Miller experiment a few years ago?

The answer, of course, is yes. But it’s still his fault.

The Monday night franchise is moving down the Disney hall from ABC to ESPN in 2006 in a deal announced Monday. The NFL also announced that the Sunday night game, a franchise established by ESPN, would be taken over by NBC, which is getting back into the NFL business for the first time since 1997.

It’s also a return to big-time, non-Olympic sports for NBC, which has occupied itself these last few years with arena football, rodeo, frog jumping, seed spitting, bird calling and other sports unburdened by huge rights fees or large groups of viewers. Before this, the Peacock’s biggest sports deal in years was an agreement to broadcast the NHL, a league that, not to put too fine a point on it, does not exist.

Monday’s deal marks the end of one of the longest traditions in this little traditionless world of sports and TV and sports TV that some of us live in. The Monday night game on ABC dates to 1970, a long-ago time of low-top shoes, low-tech graphics and the low-grade toupee that perched on the head of Howard Cosell.

I’m confident ABC will remind us of these things often between August and January, but “Monday Night Football” has given us Cosell and the halftime highlights, Dandy Don Meredith and “Turn out the lights, the party’s over,” that four-note opening fanfare, Frank Gifford’s amiable airheadedness, and a slew of yellow jackets tromping through the booth and leaving little in the way of memories: Alex Karras, Fred Williamson, Joe Namath, Dan Fouts.

And in recent years, in the Al Michaels-John Madden era, it’s given us increasingly desperate moves to stay relevant, hip and interesting in the face of ratings that were falling but still pretty damn good.

These gambits are better left to the dustbin of history, but just to give you a flavor, consider that ABC actually thought at one point that it would somehow be good for someone, somewhere, if it showed several minutes of Lions quarterback Joey Harrington playing the piano.

It’s a little sad, I suppose, that this way of life, the football game on ABC Monday nights, is coming to an end. I suspect that if you’re reading this, you probably have basic cable and the big difference between your autumn nights in 2005 and 2006 will come down to the numbers you punch into the remote.

But make no mistake, fewer people will be watching football on Monday nights after this season. And the NFL will make twice as much money on them. This little shift could be a preview of a big shift to come.

For all the talk of declining numbers, “Monday Night Football” still attracted about 16 million viewers a week last year. When ESPN had 8.4 million viewers for a Sunday night Colts-Ravens game in December, it sent out a press release.

On the other hand, NBC president Randy Falco told the San Jose Mercury News he expects that network’s Sunday night ratings to double those that ESPN had posted. “It’s wrong to think of this as ESPN’s package going to NBC,” Falco said. “It’s ABC’s package going to Sunday night.”

So even though the buzz will be around ESPN and Monday nights, and we in the commentariat will make it seem like Monday night is still the big show — especially if Michaels and Madden make the move to ESPN, which Michaels, at least, has already hinted he might do — we’re looking at a little cultural shift here, with more people likely watching the Sunday night game than the Monday night game.

The most important effect of this switch may be that it’ll become easier to get a sit-down restaurant meal on Sunday nights in some places, but it’s still a switch.

Another thing that will make Sunday night a bigger deal is the flexible scheduling that will allow NBC to choose attractive games late in the season. The flexibility was built into the deals already signed by Fox and CBS for Sunday afternoon games.

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There had been speculation that those deals were paving the way for a fungible Monday night schedule, but this makes a lot more sense. It’s much easier and less of an inconvenience to local fans to push a game back a few hours from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night than to push it back a whole day.

So let’s talk about the money, because that’s where we’ll find clues about the big switch that may be coming. The big figure is the $1.1 billion — imagine me saying BILLion like they do on TV — ESPN will pay annually for the Monday night game. That’s twice the $550 million ABC had been paying. Despite the high ratings, ABC said it was hemorrhaging money on the show, and wouldn’t go higher than $400 million this time.

ESPN could afford to go higher because it collects money from subscriber fees as well as advertising. Whether it will also lose money remains to be seen, but considering the two networks are both owned by Disney, it’s hard to picture the thinking that would make it OK for ESPN to lose a lot of money on football by attracting 8 million viewers but not OK for ABC to lose a lot by attracting 16 million.

ESPN had been paying $600 million for Sunday nights, so the NFL’s income from the two prime-time games will go up from $1.15 billion to $1.7 billion, an increase of 48 percent.

On Sunday afternoons, CBS had been paying $500 million and will now pay $622.5 million for AFC games, while Fox had been paying $550 million and will now pay $712.5 million for NFC games. So Sunday afternoon income will go up from $1.05 billion to $1.335 billion, an increase of 27 percent for the bulk of the games, all but two of them most weeks.

Add it all up and the NFL will get $3.035 billion a year from TV networks, up from $2.2 billion, an astonishing 38 percent increase, or, put in raw figures, an extra $724.9 million — $22.7 million per team. And we’re not done yet.

NFL also reupped with DirectTV for its exclusive “Sunday ticket” satellite package. The new deal is for $700 million a year, $300 million more than the old one. Counting that, the increase over the previous deal is $1.135 billion a year, 44 percent, with three-quarters of that gain — $850 million of it — coming from ESPN and DirectTV, both of which provide the league with far fewer eyeballs than the alternatives, broadcast networks and a nonexclusive satellite deal.

What does that mean? It means that the big money comes not from bigger audiences, but from smaller, more carefully selected ones. The NFL still has an eight-game package of Thursday and Saturday night games unsold. It will end up either on a new all-sports network or on the league’s own cable NFL Network.

The ESPN deal is for eight seasons, the broadcast deals for six. Could it be that 2011 will be the last season we’ll see more than a token presence of NFL football on broadcast TV?

Previous column: Terrell Owens

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