ESPN to Air First NFL Playoff Game

The cable network will televise one of next season's wild-card games.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

ESPN is going to the playoffs.

The cable network will air one of the NFL's wild-card games in January, it was announced Tuesday. The game will be the first NFL playoff matchup aired on ESPN in the cable network's 35-year history.

ESPN and the NFL recently inked a new eight-year deal for Monday Night Football and various other studio, multimedia and international rights. The agreement, which began this spring, gave the NFL the option to air a wild-card playoff game on ESPN, which the league opted to exercise this season.

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"We’re thrilled to televise our first wild-card playoff game and we thank the NFL for the opportunity," ESPN president John Skipper said in a statement. "This game will be among the highest-rated programs of the year on cable and it is compelling content that will help us better serve football fans during the postseason."

The game will be called by ESPN's Monday Night Football team of Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Lisa Salters. The telecast will be simulcast on broadcast stations in the primary markets of participating teams and be available via WatchESPN for participating cable and satellite subscribers.

It's unclear what day the game will air. The league has previously scheduled two wild-card games a day on the first Saturday and Sunday of the playoffs, with at least one in primetime. Last year's Sunday evening wild-card game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers pulled in a record 47.1 million viewers, making it the most watched NFL wild-card game in more than 25 years. With a 25.8 rating among households, it was also the highest-rated.

In 2011, ESPN renewed its deal with the NFL through 2021 for $15.2 billion, an increase of more than 70 percent over the parties' previous agreement. It is one of the richest league deals care of additional rights to re-air a robust library of NFL footage across ESPN's various studio shows.

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Last season, Monday Night Football averaged close to 14 million viewers on ESPN, easily making it cable's highest-rated program. It was the third-most-viewed season since ESPN began carrying MNF in 2006.

ESPN's playoff game isn't the only change to next season's NFL programming: A package of eight Thursday night games will air on CBS from mid-September through October. The network outbid the other broadcaster for the games, landing the package for $300 million plus the cost of production.

CBS, which pays $1 billion annually for its NFL on CBS franchise, averaged 18.7 million viewers last season, the highest regular-season average for the AFC television package in 26 years. The network's playoff games averaged 38.7 million viewers for the 2013-14 season, the third-highest average for the AFC playoffs since the 1987-88 season.