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How ESPN Scored Best Game of NFL Wild Card Weekend

  • Disney to show Cowboys vs. Bucs across five networks.
  • ESPN has salvaged its formerly broken NFL relationship.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Since the NFL announced its playoff schedule, the biggest question in sports media has been: How did ESPN land the biggest game of Super Bowl Wild Card Weekend?

The Walt Disney Co. will air Monday’s night Wild Card Weekend finale between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers across five networks (8:15 p.m. ET on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN+, and ESPN Deportes).

The other NFL TV partners paying billions annually for game rights wanted Cowboys-Bucs badly. It’s easy to see why.

The Cowboys are the biggest TV draw in the NFL, playing in four of the five most-watched regular season games this season. Meanwhile, Monday’s game could mark the swan song for Bucs quarterback Tom Brady after seven Super Bowl titles and 23 seasons.

Even better, the prime-time blockbuster is the only NFL playoff game on the calendar Monday, after a doubleheader Saturday and a tripleheader on Sunday. That means the entire country (including the extended NFL family of players, coaches, and executives) will be tuning in.

Last year, ESPN had the Los Angeles Rams-Arizona Cardinals as Wild Card Weekend finale on Monday night. Not bad. But it’s not Cowboys-Bucs.

“The game will generate an epic rating – especially if it’s a close game,” predicted John Kosner, the former executive vice president of ESPN turned founder of the Kosner Media consultancy.

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Then again, this is ESPN, the league partner that traditionally brings up the rear when it comes to the best NFL game matchups. 

The partner that’s long been shut out of the Super Bowl rotation despite paying the most. 

The network was prepared to exit the NFL game business entirely under former boss John Skipper.

The Worldwide Leader in Sports has been trying to patch up its previously strained relationship with the league for years. 

In previous seasons, a matchup like Cowboys-Bucs probably would have gone to Fox Sports, which aired five of the ten most-watched NFL games this season. Or CBS Sports, which aired the Cowboys’ Wild Card game against the San Francisco 49ers last year on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET.  

Both the NFL and ESPN declined to comment on this story. So we asked Kosner and other sports media executives why ESPN landed America’s Team. Here are five reasons: 

  • Makeup Game: ESPN lost the biggest game on its “Monday Night Football” schedule when Damar Hamlin’s shocking on-field collapse caused the NFL to postpone, and eventually cancel, the Buffalo Bills vs. Cincinnati Bengals game on January 2. “They did it to make up for the loss of Bills-Bengals,” said one rival TV executive.
  • Troy Aikman/Joe Buck: ESPN recruited Troy Aikman and Joe Buck from Fox to create a new “Monday Night Football ” announce team with Lisa Salters and John Parry this year. With six Super Bowls and over 300 games, they’re the longest-running broadcast team on NFL TV. ESPN will pay the duo $165 million over the next five years. But they’re already paying dividends. The new booth helped ESPN land a more robust MNF game schedule this year and its first two Super Bowls after the 2026 and 2030 seasons.
  • Peyton/Eli Manning: As if the new MNF announce team isn’t a big enough draw on ESPN and ABC, ESPN will offer the funny, free-wheeling Manning brothers with their “Manning-Cast” on ESPN2. Both versions of the game will be available on ESPN+. 
  • Jimmy Pitaro/Burke Magnus: Ever since former Disney executive Jimmy Pitaro got the top job in Bristol three years ago, the ESPN chairman and president Burke Magnus have made it their mission to fix the broken relationship with NFL brass on Park Avenue. It’s working. The two executives have done “a superb job” improving the NFL relationship, noted Kosner.  
  • The Disney Factor: ESPN’s NFL relationship has really become a Walt Disney Co. relationship. Over the last few years, the Burbank-based entertainment giant has become increasingly tight with the NFL. 

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No company can “flood the zone” like Disney when it wants to. Consider ESPN’s Super Bowl-like coverage plan for Cowboys-Bucs.

ESPN will offer fans in Tampa the chance to attend live versions of “First Take,” “NFL Live,” and “Monday Night Countdown.” 

On Sunday, sister Disney networks FX, FXX, and Freeform will run a 12-hour marathon of football programming, including movies like “Remember the Titans,” “The Blind Side” and “Invincible.”  

Said sports media executive and producer Eric Weinberger: “No one promotes the NFL like ESPN — they should get the Cowboys and Brady.”

During’s Monday’s episode of “First Take,” Stephen A. Smith, Ryan Clark, Michael Irvin, and Molly Qerim offered “props” to Aikman and Buck for helping them land the Big Game.

“We salute you,” said Smith.

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