"Monday Night Football," a television institution that over 35 years has helped transform the NFL into a prime-time ratings draw, is leaving ABC and moving to ESPN (search) beginning with the 2006 season.
The NFL's new broadcast deal also brings football back to NBC for the first time since 1997. NBC will take over the Sunday night games currently broadcast on ESPN.
The "Monday Night Football" (search) move to cable is expected to cost ESPN $1.1 billion per year over eight years, two sources familiar with the deals told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
NBC will broadcast Sunday night football for $600 million over six years, according to the sources. The network will also get the Super Bowl (search) in 2009 and 2012 as part of the deal, one of the sources said.
The move will leave ABC as the only major network without NFL football. "Monday Night Football" has been a pillar of ABC since the games began on prime-time in 1970, when Howard Cosell (search) anchored the show. "Monday Night Football" stands as the second-longest running prime time network series, trailing CBS' "60 Minutes" by two years.
The move to ESPN keeps the "Monday Night Football" brand within the umbrella of The Disney Company. Disney owns both ESPN and ABC.
"From the Disney perspective, it was a smart move for ABC by moving out of football and having ESPN move into Monday nights," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports.
The NFL will continue to show all cable games on free, over-the air television in home markets. That means local stations will carry ESPN's Monday night games in the cities of the teams involved.
Last month, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that the Monday night move was a strong possibility. ABC, which has been losing money on the package despite high ratings, had been balking at the NFL's asking price.
Under its current eight-year, $4.4 billion contract, ABC has paid an average of $550 million per year to broadcast "Monday Night Football" — exactly one-half of the annual average that ESPN has agreed to pay.
ESPN has been paying $600 million a year as part of its current eight-year deal to broadcast Sunday night games.
NBC has been struggling in prime-time this season, and even risks an unprecedented fall into fourth place in the ratings. ABC's newfound ratings strength with "Desperate Housewives" on Sunday nights has been particularly damaging.
"A great deal with the NFL is the best deal you can get in television," said NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol.
CBS and Fox already have agreed to pay a total of $8 billion over six years for the rights to Sunday afternoon games.
The NFL is still considering an eight game late-season package of Thursday and Saturday night games on cable and satellite. Tagliabue has said the NFL's own new network could show some or all of those games.