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ESPN reportedly wants flex scheduling for ‘Monday Night Football.’ Here’s why.



The schedule for “Monday Night Football” on ESPN, by contrast, is set in stone when the NFL schedule is released each spring, and matchups that may have looked good months in advance can become far less interesting as the season progresses and star players get hurt, teams underperform, etc. ESPN also pays the league $1.9 billion for its Monday night package (along with one playoff game, the NFL draft and a full highlights package), nearly twice as much as what NBC, CBS and Fox pay for their Sunday packages.

That deal expires after the 2021 season, and it seems as if ESPN wants some of the same flex-scheduling insurance that NBC gets. According to Sports Business Journal’s Ben Fischer and John Ourand, the network is lobbying the NFL to incorporate flex scheduling into “Monday Night Football” starting at midseason, with the promise that it will move the games to parent network ABC — guaranteeing a bigger television audience than the cable network — in return if it wins the bidding for the package.

The NFL is asking teams for feedback on the idea, which would not begin until 2023, the first year of the league’s new television contracts, the SBJ scribes report (the NFL’s TV contracts with NBC, CBS and Fox expire after the 2022 season).

Applying flex scheduling to Monday night games comes with logistical difficulties that don’t pop up when a game is moved from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night. Fans usually plan to attend games months in advance, and moving games from Sundays to Mondays without much warning could create some headaches in terms of flights and hotel rooms. (Sunday games must be moved no less than 12 days in advance.) Likewise, teams might struggle with finding lodging for their players and coaches with a move from Sunday to Monday. There also are worries from teams with smaller season ticket bases, because night games sell fewer tickets than those played during the day, Fischer and Ourand report.

There are other potential stumbling blocks, namely that the other networks would be loath to lose a marquee game to ESPN or ABC. Under the current system, Fox and CBS can protect one Sunday afternoon game in five of the six weeks between Weeks 11 and 16 of the NFL schedule, keeping those games in their Sunday afternoon time slots and out of NBC’s hands on Sunday nights.

This past season’s “Monday Night Football” schedule did not feature as many bad late-season matchups as in years past and ESPN’s 17-game schedule scored its most television viewers since 2015, with the average number of viewers for each game up 17 percent since 2017. “Monday Night Football” also has been cable television’s most-watched series for three straight years. But with the NFL poised to demand even more money for its TV packages from its broadcast partners — one estimate is a total take of $8 billion to $10 billion, up from $5 billion currently — those networks will insist on having the best possible games to air.

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