ESPN acquires minority stake, TV rights in AFL

ESPN buffeted its year-round football programming lineup and Monday night presence, acquiring minority ownership in the Arena Football League as part of a five-year agreement announced Tuesday.

The deal includes extensive multimedia rights and a minimum of 26 televised games per season beginning in 2007.

"We are committed to the Arena Football League and its exciting brand of football," John Skipper, executive vice president for content at ESPN, said in a statement. "We will help grow the league across all of our multimedia platforms. As the league grows, so will our business, and we see a bright future for us both."

Similar to recent major ESPN content acquisitions, the agreement entails a broad range of rights among the network's 15 platforms, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN on ABC, ESPN Classic, ESPN.com, Spanish-language ESPN Deportes and ESPN360. ESPN also gains the right to both air and syndicate AFL games through ESPN International.

ESPN will televise a minimum of 17 regular-season games and nine playoff games -- including a minimum three wild-card games, three divisional playoff games, both conference championships and the Arena Bowl -- on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.

ESPN will also have an exclusive window for weekly Monday night primetime games on ESPN2 -- continuing to establish Monday night as a "football night" for fans.

"This is the longest and most comprehensive media partnership in AFL history," AFL commissioner David Baker said. "ESPN's brand is ingrained in sports fans, who watch, read and listen to its multiple media properties. Through its equity purchase, ESPN now owns a piece of the AFL and has the ability to provide exciting football content on Monday nights for fans on a year-round basis.

"There is no better partner to help grow the AFL into a leading global, multimedia property."

The network's 2007 coverage will kick off on ABC with a pair of regional games -- Chicago Rush at Kansas City Brigade and Dallas Desperados at New York Dragons -- on March 4. ABC will broadcast ArenaBowl XXI on July 29 from the New Orleans Arena; it will be the city of New Orleans' first host team championship event since Hurricane Katrina.

The 2007 AFL television schedule on ESPN (all times Eastern):

March 4: Chicago at Kansas City; Dallas at New York, ESPN on ABC (regional), 12:30 p.m.
March 12: Los Angeles at Orlando, ESPN2, 7 p.m.
March 22: Colorado at Philadelphia ESPN2, 7 p.m.
March 26: Dallas at Orlando, ESPN2, 7 p.m.
April 1: Los Angeles at Chicago, ESPN2, 1:30 p.m.
April 9: Georgia at Philadelphia, ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.
April 16: Philadelphia at Dallas, ESPN2, 8 p.m.
April 23: Philadelphia at Columbus, ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.
April 30: Philadelphia at Chicago, ESPN2, 8 p.m.
May 7: Colorado at Chicago, ESPN2, 8 p.m.
May 14: New York at Philadelphia, ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.
May 21: New Orleans at Philadelphia, ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.
May 28: New York at New Orleans, ESPN2, 8 p.m.
June 4: Colorado at Utah, ESPN2, 10:30 p.m.
June 11: Los Angeles at Arizona, ESPN2, 10 p.m.
June 18: Chicago at Colorado, ESPN2, 10 p.m.
June 25: Dallas at Colorado, ESPN2, 10 p.m.

Postseason television schedule
June 29: Wild card, ESPN, 7 p.m.
June 30: Wild card, ESPN, noon
June 30: Wild card, ESPN, 3 p.m.
July 2: Wild card, ESPN2, 10 p.m.
July 7: Divisional playoff, ESPN, 3 p.m.
July 7: Divisional playoff, ESPN, 8 p.m.
July 8: Divisional playoff, ESPN2, 9 p.m.
July 9: Divisional playoff, ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.
July 14: Conference championship, ESPN, 3 p.m.
July 15: Conference championship, ESPN2, 12:30 p.m.
July 29: ArenaBowl XXI, at New Orleans, ESPN on ABC, 3 p.m.
Note: ESPN will carry a minimum of three wild-card games and three divisional playoff games