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NFL won’t resume postponed “Monday Night Football” game

The National Football League will not resume a postponed “Monday Night Football” game that was indefinitely suspended following a critical injury to a player this week.

The decision to not resume the game between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals comes several days after Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered from an episode of cardiac arrest during the game’s first quarter.

The event was part of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast and was broadcast nationally by its sister network, ABC. The game had playoff implications for American Football Conference teams: Buffalo is the second seed in the AFC; Cincinnati was third. Both teams had the potential to move up the playoff roster, depending on the outcome of that game and one other.

About a half-hour after Hamlin was transported off the field by ambulance, league executives decided to permanently suspend the game. Hamlin was admitted to a local trauma medical center in critical condition. (On Wednesday, doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said his condition is improving; he is awake and able to communicate through writing, they said.)

For several days, the sports world weighed what the NFL would ultimately do about the game that ended so abruptly: Would it be resumed at a later date, or would it end in a draw? On a conference call with reporters early Tuesday morning, NFL executives declined to say what their contingency plan was for the game, saying their efforts were focused on Hamlin’s condition and responding to the trauma that players and staff members on both teams suffered by witnessing it.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported the league has ultimately decided not to resume the game at all. The information came from unnamed sources who were purportedly familiar with the NFL’s thinking on the matter.

Less clear is what happens going forward: The final week of the NFL’s regular season is scheduled to begin on Saturday (there is no Thursday Night Football game this week), and both teams are expected to play. But the league has yet to address how it will rank teams in the AFC for the playoffs, which begins soon.

Also unclear is how the league will address what would have been the penultimate broadcast of Monday Night Football, which was abruptly stopped due to Hamlin’s injury. Both the NFL and the Walt Disney Company — which owns a controlling stake in ESPN — have been in communication about ways to satisfy the NFL’s obligation to provide ESPN with a full season of games per the league’s contract with the broadcaster.

The league’s two Saturday games were already scheduled to air on ESPN and simulcast on ABC, and the league’s contract with its three other broadcast partners — Fox Corporation, Comcast’s NBC Sports and Paramount Global’s CBS Sports — leave little wiggle room to move a regular-season game to ESPN and ABC to make up for the loss of the telecast.

Officials at ESPN are not overly concerned with replacing the lost Monday Night Football game with another event, according to a source familiar with the matter, and may simply accept a small refund for the game. No one at ESPN or the Walt Disney Company has pressed league executives particularly hard on the matter, given the nature of the situation, the source affirmed.

Neither ABC nor ESPN ran their full inventory of ad spots immediately after Hamlin’s injury — most of the commercials aired on ESPN and ABC were for network programming, the NFL’s apparel store and streaming service NFL Plus.

“The breaks gave talent and behind-the-scenes personnel an opportunity to get their bearings as the network worked through a pretty fluid and very unprecedented situation,” the source told The Desk on Thursday, noting that there is a contingency plan in place at ESPN and ABC Sports for injuries that require a lengthy TV timeout, “but a prolonged stoppage in play from a traumatic, life-threatening injury was very much on a different level.”

The game helped ESPN and ABC Sports draw a significant amount of interest to Monday Night Football, but the humane coverage of Hamlin’s injury aired across both networks helped propel the program to some of its highest-ratings ever.

According to figures released by Nielsen, the total viewership of Monday Night Football across the Disney-operated networks was 23.8 million, spurred in large part by the fact that Monday Night Football was simulcast on ABC. On the broadcast network, 11 million households were tuned in; on ESPN, 9.1 million watched. The remainder of the viewers were tuned to ESPN 2, ESPN Plus and the Spanish-language broadcaster ESPN Deportes.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).