#TBT: ESPN and the NFL kick off together in 1987


Thirty years ago this week — March 15, 1987 — ESPN announced that it had been awarded the NFL’s first cable television agreement – the most significant sports deal in cable television history at that time.

ESPN televised 13 games the first year – four preseason games, eight Sunday night games in the second half of the season, and the Pro Bowl, which aired for the first time in prime time. Mike Patrick (play-by-play) and Roy Firestone, then the host of the weekday interview show, Up Close, called ESPN’s games. Each week, they were joined by a guest analyst, including NFL legends Larry Csonka, Roger Staubach and Jim Brown.

The NFL’s first live game on cable was Aug. 16, 1987 — the Chicago Bears at Miami Dolphins preseason matchup. Watch the opening minute of that telecast in the video above.

In ESPN‘s first regular-season game, the New England Patriots visited the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Nov. 8. NFL PrimeTime – the first show of its kind with unlimited highlights of Sunday’s NFL games — also premiered that same year (Sept. 13) with host Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and Pete Axthelm.

In 1987, the NFL immediately became the most-watched programming on cable. For 19 years on Sunday nights and the past 11 with Monday Night Football, ESPN has retained the crown, averaging more households than any other series on cable.

1987: NFL Hosts Tom Jackson, Chris Berman and Pete Axthelm are shown working on the studio set. (Rick LaBranche/ESPN Images)
ESPN NFL commentators (L-R) Tom Jackson, Chris Berman and Pete Axthelm talk football in 1987, the network’s first season with NFL rights. (Rick LaBranche/ESPN Images)