Sports Outside the Beltway

ESPN Bets on Arena Football

Looks like ESPN had an ulterior motive for acquiring the rights to Monday Night Football from the NFL this year. They were just warming you up for the Arena Football season.

ESPN and the AFL announced today that they have entered into a partnership for the next five years. The deal includes “extensive multimedia rights”, which apparently includes a broadcast schedule with a minimum of 26 televised games for the 2007 AFL season.

It’s fairly obvious that ESPN is hoping to keep the momentum of Monday Night Football going, since the deal also includes an “exclusive window for weekly Monday Night games” on ESPN2.

The move has to be considered a gamble. Although attendance in AFL games has been increasingly strong the past few years, the television ratings have not followed suit. AFL fans and owners have been quick to blame NBC’s lackluster coverage and advertising for the most recent failure, but the AFL’s 20 year history contains a high rate of franchise turnover. However, the ESPN deal combined with the EA Sports announcement of a new version of the Arena Football game for 2007 are both strong wins in the league’s favor.

The grass roots fan base has been up in arms since the announcement of several rule changes for the 2007 season, including a “free substitution” rule that many fear will eliminate the “Iron Man” nature of the game; under the old rules, a number of players were forced to play both offense and defense. It seems to be the general consensus that the influx of NFL influence (John Elway, Ron Jaworski, Jerry Jones, etc.) is turning the game into “NFL Lite”.

It remains to be seen if the old fans will take to the new rules, or if the deals will bring in enough new fans to offset any ticket losses.

Speaking from my own experience as a Philadelphia Soul season ticket holder, the games have always been very exciting, but more fun live than on TV. But I have to believe that the bias in coverage ESPN gives sports that it broadcasts on SportsCenter and its endless parade of commentary shows (when was the last time you heard PTI talk about hockey?) will be enough to offset any loss of old-school fans.

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