Ahead Of ‘Monday Night Football’ Doubleheader On ABC And ESPN, Disney Says Surging Viewer Engagement Is Enticing Advertisers

NFL ratings are booming in just about every timeslot this season, and Monday Night Football is no exception. It kicked off on September 12 and drew 19.8 million total viewers, its biggest audience since 2009.

Now, the Disney franchise is mixing things up with an eye toward opening up even more advertising opportunities. Two games will air at overlapping times tonight on ABC and ESPN, a twist on the back-to-back doubleheaders that aired for more than a decade in Week 1 on ESPN.

The first game, on ESPN and ESPN2, will feature the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills. An hour and 15 minutes later, at 8:30 p.m. ET, the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles will start on ABC and ESPN+. Extensive cut-ins and periodic side-by-side displays will enable viewers to keep track during the bonanza, which promises to be more than an hour longer in the aggregate than a typical 3-hour NFL timeslot. (The popular “Manningcast” on ESPN2 is taking a break this week.)

Deidra Maddock, VP of Disney Advertising Sports Brand Solutions, told Deadline in an interview that the company has been “working toward this day since we signed the agreement.” Disney, along with Paramount Global, NBCUniversal, Fox and Amazon, signed up for a record-smashing $110 billion rights deal for NFL games over the next 11 years. As a part of the new contract, the number of annual Monday night games went from 17 to 23. (Some bear the “MNF” brand but air in different timeslots.)

Maddock said Monday night games have been more than 90% sold since the upfront. In 2021, Disney took in $318 million from in-game ads on the night, according to Standard Media Index, an 18% jump from 2020.

As far as tonight’s double-dip, she said, “partners are viewing it as more of an activation than as a one-off opportunity,” she said. The momentum has attracted new advertisers. Target is a new MNF sponsor, whose spot will air coming out of halftime. All-State is the new backer of the halftime show.

In the runup to the games, Disney pointed to new data indicating surging levels of engagement on top of the massive tune-in. The company has teamed with EDO, a data and analytics company that measures predictive outcomes for convergent TV, to measure consumer engagement with ads aired during Monday Night Football.

“It really does emphasize the power of live sports,” said Danielle Brown, SVP, Disney Advertising Data Enablement & Category Strategy, in an interview with Deadline.

EDO found that viewers overall were 68% more likely to search for brands and products advertised during week 1 of MNF on ESPN than viewers of ads during broadcast and cable primetime shows. The Denver Broncos-Seattle Seahawks opener also saw 7% higher search than other networks’ opening games, according to Disney.

Brown said the ebbing of Covid across society, with mask mandates and limitations on mass gatherings easing, has unlocked even more interest in the NFL. “The return of somewhat to normalcy has driven the interest,” she said. “Having a full crowd is really meaningful to viewers.”

The NFL venture comes after some public jockeying over the corporate fate of ESPN as a subsidiary of Disney. Activist investor Daniel Loeb, who recently bought a small stake in Disney, expressed his preference for a spinoff of ESPN, which he argued would enable it to take advantage of sports betting and other marketplace developments. “When the world thought that maybe ESPN was for up for grabs, we got at a lot of inquiries,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek told Deadline in an interview during D23. Those overtures said a lot “about the power of sport and the advertising business,” the exec added, but the company is redoubling its commitment to fully owning ESPN. Loeb has also withdrawn his suggestion about the spinoff.

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