ESPN Grabs
"Monday Night Football"

by Bob Raissman and Matt Marrone, New York Daily News

Howard Cosell must be spinning in his grave. ABC's "Monday Night Football," an American TV institution for 35 years, will end after next season.

The stunning word came on April 18, when the NFL announced it had inked new TV deals with NBC and ESPN.

Beginning with the 2006 season, ESPN, which had the NFL's Sunday night cable package, will pick up Monday night games, paying the league $1.1 billion per year for eight years.

The switch to ESPN will be a culture shock for football fans, who treat "Monday Night Football" as a God-given right.

It spawned memorable theme songs and unforgettable moments - both on and off the field. It also made Cosell, the legendary mouthy sportscaster, a household name.

"'Monday Night Football' has been a love affair at ABC," said George Bodenheimer, president of ABC Sports and ESPN, both subsidiaries of the Walt Disney Co. "But we're not afraid of making changes at ABC."

But not everyone has cable - which means some viewers will be out in the cold on Monday nights.

Fans without cable will have some consolation: The Sunday night cable package will move to NBC, which had been out of the NFL business for eight years.

NBC will pay the NFL $600 million per year for six years to carry 16 regular season games and the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl in both 2009 and 2012. NBC will kick off each season with a Thursday night primetime opener.

ESPN gets the right to televise 17 regular season games per year - 8:30 kickoff- and four preseason games.

ABC had a chance for the Sunday night games but bowed out of the bidding on Friday. Sources said ABC did not want to disrupt its Sunday night primetime schedule, which includes the hit series, "Desperate Housewives," to air football.

The Sunday afternoon packages, owned by Fox and CBS, are not affected by the new contracts.

The NFL's deals with ESPN and NBC could bring drastic changes to the broadcast booth. Officials from both networks indicated they are not committed to any announcers to man the microphones next year.

ESPN's current Sunday night team consists of Mike Patrick, Paul Maguire and Joe Theissman.

Al Michaels and John Madden are ABC's "Monday Night Football" team.

"We will be putting the best possible broadcast team (in the ESPN booth) for 2006," Bodenheimer said. He may be forced to choose between retaining ESPN's current team or bringing Michaels and Madden to ESPN.

Sources already had been talking about pairing Madden with Bob Costas, NBC's premier sports voice, as the Peacock's NFL team.

"I just want to celebrate the deal," said NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol. "I will start going through my (broadcaster) Rolodex tomorrow."