Gary Susman
April 19, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

After 36 years of airing TV’s most celebrated sports franchise, ABC is ready to punt and let someone else run with the ball. On Monday, the National Football League, ABC, and ESPN announced that ABC will no longer carry Monday Night Football starting in the 2006 season. Instead, sister cable channel ESPN (both are Disney outlets) will carry the games, paying a reported $1.1 billion per year for eight years. The cable sports network, which has been airing the NFL’s Sunday night games, will cede those broadcasts, which have been snapped up by NBC. The move leaves ABC the only broadcast network without any pro football games.

NBC will pay $600 million a year for six years of Sunday games, including two wild-card playoffs per year and two of six Super Bowls. That’s $200 million more per year than ABC was willing to pay to renew Monday Night Football, the New York Times reports. In recent seasons, ABC has been paying $550 million per year of MNF and had been losing both viewers and money, to the tune of $150 million per year. According to the Wall Street Journal, NBC was able to make the higher numbers work by getting the NFL to agree to buy more goods and services from the network’s parent company, General Electric. Also, NBC’s Sunday schedule, while strong (it includes hits Crossing Jordan and Law & Order: Criminal Intent), can’t compete with ABC’s, which has Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Desperate Housewives. It’s not clear whether NBC will move its Sunday dramas to another night or just wait until football season is over and let them run 22 weeks without reruns, à la 24.

ABC created MNF in 1970. Its primetime weeknight slot typically made it the most-watched sports program of the week, and the broadcasts made sportscasting stars out of Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and others. It’s not clear whether the current star sportscasting team of John Madden and Al Michaels will follow the Monday games to ESPN.

ESPN used to pay that same $600 million per year for Sunday night games, though it was able to split the cost with cable carriers. How does it make sense for the cable network to pay another $500 million per year, especially when it’s not likely to draw the same ratings as ABC did on Monday nights? Apparently, ESPN believes, as ABC once did, that the prestige value of the franchise is worth the red ink. ”We’re not going to match ABC’s ratings,” ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro told the Times, ”but perception is reality, and ESPN is going to light a fire under Monday Night Football.”

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