35 Years of ‘MNF’: ABC’s Final Drive

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Since its kickoff in 1970 “Monday Night Football” has meant something special to advertisers. This final year for “MNF” on ABC is no exception.

And The Walt Disney Co. is making plans to keep the franchise pumped up when “MNF” announcerAl Michaels and company move to ESPN next season.

“It’s a wonderful property, and we intend to take it to another evolution and version, and that’s ESPN’s version, which I think is timed just perfectly with where the business is going as well,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Sports customer marketing and sales.

The new ESPN version being offered to advertisers will include new media options ranging from the Internet to cellphones.

But at its heart, “Monday Night Football” is a place where advertisers air high-profile spots to reach a very broad audience of mostly male viewers.

This season, advertisers are paying about $350,000 a pop for 30-second spots on the show. “There are a few spots left here and there. The property is very well sold,” Mr. Erhardt said.

Advertisers have often used “Monday Night Football” as a commercial showcase.

“It’s a place that advertisers use to showcase new work and talked-about work,” said Mr. Erhardt.

In the Thursday night season opener earlier this month, for example, Fidelity Investments launched its new campaign featuring ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.

Another advertiser, Domino’s Pizza, is wrapping a major promotion for its new Steak Fanatic Pizza around “MNF.”

Domino’s was an “MNF” sponsor last season and this year has expanded its presence on the show.

In addition to the pizza maker’s regular spots, ABC is creating co-branded spots that link Domino’s to “Monday Night Football” and use the show’s well-known theme music. The spot will air next month.

Meanwhile, the pizza chain will put its pies into boxes that carry the “MNF” logo and a complete game schedule.

Several new sponsors are suiting up for “Monday Night Football.” Cable giant Comcast this season has become a major “MNF” advertiser and is the presenting sponsor of the broadcasts in high definition. Auto insurance company Geico has also signed on a as a sponsor this year.

“Those brands are trying to be noticed and be seen,” Mr. Erhardt said.

High-profile regulars include Anheuser-Busch, a longtime sponsor that usually has about five spots per game.

With “MNF,” “You know there’s going to be a great matchup and all the attention is going to be focused,” said Tony Ponturo, VP of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch. The game has generated double-digit ratings, which is tough to find, he added.

Other key sponsors include Lexus and Toyota, which are the halftime sponsors, and FedEx, which presents statistical packages.

“I think Monday night has always been a property that the advertising community looked at as a showcase, and it remains that,” Mr. Erhardt said.

While “Monday Night Football” was certainly a breakthrough when it started, Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing at media buyer OMD, said, “It’s not as special as it once was.”

In some ways, Sunday afternoon games are preferred by some clients, Mr. McGovern said, noting that while “MNF” ratings have declined over the years, Sunday afternoon game ratings have remained steady.

“Everyone watches their hometown team. If you’re going to watch one game, which one would you watch?” he said.

Next season, Mr. McGovern said, the showcase prime-time football broadcast will be Sunday night on NBC, partly because the league has set up a flexible scheduling system that should allow the network to keep noncompetitive games off the late-season schedule.

“Monday Night Football” on ESPN will be closer to the delivery of the cable network’s current Sunday night package, he said.

Mr. Ponturo said that while ESPN has done a great job with “Sunday Night Football,” the second weekly prime-time broadcast “took a little away from ‘Monday Night Football.'” He said that when “MNF” moves to ESPN next season, “I think they will do a lot to keep it a prestigious event.”

Going Forward

Indeed, ESPN has plans to keep advertisers interested in advertising on Monday nights. “Next season, ‘Monday Night Football,’ the brand, will remain in a fabulous place, and that’s on ESPN,” Mr. Erhardt said. “What we think is terrific about the property going forward is that we’ll be able to bring the full portfolio of ESPN’s multimedia approach to ‘Monday Night Football.'”

On cable, there will be 20 fewer spots available to national advertisers, partly because local systems get more commercial time than local broadcast stations get from ABC. Much of that time will be snapped up by official sponsors of the NFL.

That should keep demand for the rest of the spots tight.

At the same time, ESPN is planning an offering that goes beyond 30-second spots. “We intend to go to the marketplace in two significant ways,” Mr. Erhardt said.

One way is a multiscreen opportunity. Aside from its telecast on ESPN, the game will be shown live in high definition on ESPN HD, in Spanish on ESPN Deportes and on ESPN Phone, and there will be a version on ESPN.com.

“It will be the first true multiscreen sales opportunity for people to be able to buy advertising in all of our screens, and I think that’s an exciting sales proposition,” Mr. Erhardt said.

The other initiative is designed to surround the fan with a 24-hour version of “MNF” on ESPN, he said.

In that configuration, “Monday Night Football” will start at 12:01 a.m., right after the Sunday night game on NBC, and run up to the edition of “SportsCenter” that follows “Monday Night Football” on ESPN. Advertisers will be able to sponsor football-oriented shoulder programming and countdowns throughout the day, in addition to in-game programming.

“We’ll go to advertisers with two versions of the world,” Mr. Erhardt said. “You’ll be able to buy that kind of real-time multiscreen version as well as the 24-hour-immersion version. And I think that’s unique to our business, and it’s a great platform for us to go forward.”

Even though ratings may be lower, ESPN hopes to keep the price for the new, value-added units at the same level as the current pricing on ABC. “That is our goal, to maintain unit pricing, but unit pricing in a different way, in a way that suggests that there’s more consumer touch points besides just hoping that the guy watched the ad when you had it on,” Mr. Erhardt said. “This way you can reach that fan with multiple screens, multiple media and multiple times over a 24-hour period.”

ABC had multiyear contracts with many of its key sponsors, and those contracts will expire with the broadcast rights deal at the end of the year. ESPN/ABC Sports has begun to talk to sponsors about the opportunities on ESPN.

“We have significant dialogue going on as we speak with many [current sponsors] to participate in ESPN’s version of ‘Monday Night Football.’ So we are in the marketplace talking,” Mr. Erhardt said.