'Monday Night Football' stays on ESPN through 2021

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ESPN is betting nearly $2 billion a year that fans are ready for even more football on even more platforms.

The network agreed with the league on an eight-year contract extension that keeps "Monday Night Football" on ESPN through the 2021 season, brings the games to some tablets and boosts the amount of programming shown on the already football-saturated family of networks.

The deal is worth $1.9 billion a year for a total of $15.2 billion over the length of the contract, two people with knowledge of the agreement told The Associated Press. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because no money figures were officially announced.

ESPN's current deal is worth $1.1 billion a year to the NFL.

The contract announced Thursday also includes expanded international rights and 3-D distribution rights.

ESPN's expanded coverage for this season got started Thursday afternoon, when its daily - even in the offseason - "NFL Live" show doubled in length to an hour-long format.

"Five hundred new hours of programming, right now, starting today," ESPN/ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer said during a conference call. "From our point of view, this is a great deal for the company. It really fuels our company 24-7."

Viewers with tablets whose cable companies have deals with ESPN will be able to watch "Monday Night Football" on their devices.

"Monday night, fans can watch the game on their iPad for the very first time," Bodenheimer said.

The NFL draws huge numbers for ESPN - and all of its network partners. According to the network, visits to the ESPN website spike on Sundays and Mondays. The network also says it gets heavy web traffic from tablets and phones and through apps that let fans monitor scores during football season.

Some fans will be able to watch studio shows on their phones. The NFL already has an agreement to stream games only to Verizon phones.

Bodenheimer said ESPN would not charge cable distributors more because of the deal, nor add on a surcharge. The deal, however, will probably give ESPN more pricing power - Bodenheimer said the deal will increase the value ESPN brings to cable companies.

He also brushed off suggestions that the slack U.S. economy is causing more consumers to cancel their cable subscriptions.

"Our overall business is greatly enhanced by our affiliation with the NFL," Bodenheimer said. "ESPN delivers for cable operators ... so this will be received very well by our distributors."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was pleased to get the deal done on the day the 2011 regular season started in Green Bay, where the Packers were set to play the Saints.

"They've taken a great brand and made it better," Goodell said. "They've had unprecedented success with what they've done. We expect to continue to grow that together."

The previous deal went through the 2013 season. After 36 years on ABC, the "Monday Night Football" package moved to ESPN in 2006.

The agreement includes 17 Monday games a season through 2021 and coverage of the Pro Bowl and NFL draft. It gives the NFL the option to show a wild-card playoff game on ESPN, which could possibly come from an expanded postseason or games moved from other networks after the NFL negotiates its other TV deals.

ESPN also keeps Spanish-language rights to "Monday Night Football" to be shown on ESPN Deportes in the U.S., as well as rights to show other regular-season and playoff games in markets including the Caribbean, Brazil, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

"This helps grow our entire footprint around the world," Bodenheimer said. "We're very thrilled with the deal as it's constructed. I know it's going to be a very good deal for ESPN."


AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner and Sports Writer Rachel Cohen contributed to this story.


Follow Rick Freeman at twitter.com/RWFreeman


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