As the NFL playoffs continue this weekend, the league hopes to complete a new CBA and new television contracts by the end of the year, and there could be big changes on the horizon. As part of the CBA, the league wants to introduce a 17th game to the schedule, potentially accompanied by a second bye week, in hopes of carving out an additional package to sell to media or streaming companies. As it is there should be plenty of interest in the existing packages, with Disney hoping to get ABC back into the Super Bowl rotation, as well as the prospect of ending the conference-specific tie-ins of the Sunday afternoon packages.
In my view, the former is more likely than the latter. I’m not sure I’ve seen any actually solid reporting that the conference tie-ins would completely end, and even if they did it would depend on Fox’s willingness to give CBS (or whoever wins the other Sunday afternoon package) equal rights to the top Sunday afternoon games in exchange for a lower rights fee. If Fox isn’t up for that, CBS isn’t going to accept taking the dregs of the schedule left over after the other networks take their picks, as I said before the season when I looked at what a fully unconferenced schedule might look like, and would rather simply keep its AFC tie-in that ensures fans of teams in markets like Boston, Houston, and New York are tuning in to CBS in a majority of weeks, with expanded crossflexing allowing them to air more NFC games, perhaps with more flexibility in the balance of crossflexes. (The Titans may have benefitted from the Chiefs winning in the early slot Week 17 giving the Texans nothing to play for, a set of games that may have been scheduled the way they were in part because the NFL owed Fox a crossflexed CBS game and so didn’t want to overcomplicate things by giving CBS another Fox game to anchor their early slot, even if the Patriots could still have played early, or punish both networks by giving Fox an actually meaningful AFC game that would have diluted the audience for the NFC East race Fox wanted to focus on. While many of my commenters, which I even agree with, would solve this problem by playing all games in each conference at the same time Week 17 with each broadcast network getting two games from each, there’s no evidence that’s actually under consideration.)
If the league does dissolve the conference tie-ins on the Sunday afternoon packages, it will need to reinvent its playoff schedule – and this is an area where ABC entering the Super Bowl rotation in addition to the existing partners, as opposed to replacing one of them, could help the league (or hinder it, depending on your point of view), and something I suspect the league’s move this year to put the Sunday divisional games at the same start times as the conference championship games may be in preparation for. The NFL playoff schedule has historically been highly tied to the networks’ conference tie-ins, and while having NBC trade in the weakest wild-card game for a divisional-round game in the last contract has gone some distance to allow the league some flexibility in scheduling playoff games, nonetheless the need for CBS to air only AFC games and Fox only NFC games is an overriding consideration on the playoff schedule. NBC and ABC effectively need to air wild-card games in opposite conferences, and the conference NBC’s divisional game comes from is set before the season, alternating between the two conferences so CBS and Fox know whether they’re airing one or two divisional games. Finally, the conference championships – annually the most-watched programming of the year outside the Super Bowl – always air on the networks of each conference’s respective Sunday afternoon package, alternating between the 3 PM ET and 6:30 PM ET timeslots. Dissolving the conference tie-ins means eliminating the underlying reason for this structure, and NBC and ABC would love to get conference championship games in years they don’t have the Super Bowl.
What structure might replace it? Here’s how I, at least, would structure things to keep all of the league’s partners happy:
- The conference championship games go to two networks that are not airing the Super Bowl. The network airing neither a conference championship nor the Super Bowl gets two divisional-round games, one from each conference, to compensate, including the late Sunday divisional game with first pick of the available games, with the conference championship networks getting the other two. Among other things, this allows a network to know that they will have the late Sunday divisional game ahead of time and schedule lead-out programming accordingly (something Fox wasn’t able to do this year). (If the Super Bowl rotation remains at three networks, the Super Bowl network gets two divisional games but the network airing the early conference championship game gets the late Sunday spot and first pick of available games.)
- The network airing the early conference championship game gets the Sunday 4:30 ET wild-card game and first pick of games on the weekend. Thus, all four networks get an NFL playoff game as a lead-in to primetime programming. To compensate the early conference championship network for not actually having their Sunday late game in primetime, that network also gets second choice of divisional games and timeslots; if the top two picks go to the same conference, the two-divisionals network gets the worse of the two games from the remaining conference. (This does not apply if the Super Bowl rotation remains at three networks; in that case NBC may keep the Sunday late wild-card game on lockdown as a lead-in to the Golden Globes, unless they end up shut out. I don’t know how the league would handle it if one network gets completely shut out of the NFL.)
- To compensate the Super Bowl network for only airing one playoff game before the Super Bowl, that network gets second choice of games and time slots on Wild Card weekend with the opportunity to leapfrog the early conference championship network for the best game (but only on Saturday night), depending on stadium availability and time zones, as well as the league’s preference that each conference get a game wrapping up at least one round of the playoffs each year, and that each non-Super Bowl network air at least one game from each conference. In both cases I would expect the second-choice time slot to be on Saturday nights (except, potentially, for NBC, to avoid pissing off Lorne Michaels) once out-of-home data is fully baked into Nielsen numbers, but for divisional weekend especially the Sunday early slot may remain strong.
- If there is no clear distinction between the two remaining networks based on the above criteria (or maintaining a balance of games from each conference for the late conference championship network), the two-divisionals network gets the remaining choice of wild-card games, as they would likely still be doing worse in gross playoff ratings points compared to the conference championship networks. On the other hand, the late conference championship network hasn’t really gotten to “choose” anything, so they may get to pick ahead of the two-divisionals network under certain circumstances, especially if they’re stuck with the AFC championship game.
- In the event the league expands the playoffs to 14 teams, the additional wild-card games go to ESPN and whoever picks up the remaining, “new” package. If the league wishes to stick entirely to broadcast television, one game goes to ABC (assuming ABC and ESPN pick up separate regular-season packages) with the other going to the Super Bowl network except in years that’s ABC. In those cases, over the course of an eight-year contract the extra game would go to CBS one year and Fox the other, in recognition of their having to produce many more games in the regular season and having more ability to bring in a second broadcast team seamlessly.
- Over the course of an eight-year contract, each network gets each conference championship game in each timeslot once. As a result, the conference championships mostly stick with their current pattern of alteration, but “skip” a year at one point so that each network gets a conference championship in the same timeslot they did four years ago, but from the opposite conference. Alternately, each network’s timeslot varies from the first rotation to the second, though my inclination is that timeslot is more important. In total, the league will try to give each network ten playoff games from each conference over the life of the contract, though some imbalances may be inevitable.
- Optional: Exclusive rights to the NFL Draft go to the network furthest from the Super Bowl, so the network that just completed their second season without it.
Here’s one idea for how the rotation might look. I’m assuming once the Super Bowl rotation goes to four networks NBC would want all their Super Bowl years to fall in Winter Olympic years, as in 2018 and 2022 (if the changes to the schedule result in the Super Bowl overlapping with the Winter Olympics on a regular basis, at least NBC is stopping any other network from stealing their Olympic thunder). With Fox reportedly selling national Super Bowl ad space to Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg the day before the Iowa caucuses, I suspect the league would be accused of trying to tip the political scales if they gave Fox the Super Bowl in presidential election years on a regular basis, so I gave Fox the Super Bowl in the year after NBC, followed by CBS and finally ABC. For this first rotation, each network gets conference championship games in alternating years. “2D” refers to the two-divisional network, “SB” to the Super Bowl network, and the conference championship networks are referred to with the conference each network is slated to air followed by an “early” or “late” designation.
- 2023: 2D ABC, AFC early CBS, NFC late NBC, SB Fox
- 2024: 2D NBC, NFC early Fox, AFC late ABC, SB CBS
- 2025: 2D Fox, AFC early NBC, NFC late CBS, SB ABC
- 2026: 2D CBS, NFC early ABC, AFC late Fox, SB NBC
- 2027: 2D ABC, NFC early CBS, AFC late NBC, SB Fox
- 2028: 2D NBC, AFC early Fox, NFC late ABC, SB CBS
- 2029: 2D Fox, NFC early NBC, AFC late CBS, SB ABC
- 2030: 2D CBS, AFC early ABC, NFC late Fox, SB NBC
To help you understand how this works, here’s what the 2023 playoff schedule might look like under this system:
- Wild card: Saturday 4:30 PM ET NBC (or ABC), Saturday 8 PM ET Fox or ABC, Sunday 1 PM ET ABC or Fox (or NBC), Sunday 4:30 PM ET CBS
- Divisional: Saturday 4:30 PM ET ABC, Saturday 8 PM ET CBS or NBC, Sunday 3 PM ET NBC or CBS, Sunday 6:30 PM ET ABC
- Conference championships: AFC 3 PM ET CBS, NFC 6:30 PM ET NBC
- Super Bowl: 6:30 PM ET, Fox
- Optional: 2023 Draft on ABC and/or ESPN
Here’s an alternative where each network’s two-divisional year comes the year after the Super Bowl and “works their way up” to the Super Bowl the next time, with CBS and ABC switched.
- 2023: 2D NBC, AFC early CBS, NFC late ABC, SB Fox
- 2024: 2D Fox, NFC early NBC, AFC late CBS, SB ABC
- 2025: 2D ABC, AFC early Fox, NFC late NBC, SB CBS
- 2026: 2D CBS, NFC early ABC, AFC late Fox, SB NBC
- 2027: 2D NBC, NFC early CBS, AFC late ABC, SB Fox
- 2028: 2D Fox, AFC early NBC, NFC late CBS, SB ABC
- 2029: 2D ABC, NFC early Fox, AFC late NBC, SB CBS
- 2030: 2D CBS, AFC early ABC, NFC late Fox, SB NBC
One caveat: when it was first reported that NBC would give up a wild-card game for a divisional game in the current contract, it wasn’t entirely clear what would happen to the other three divisional games, and I kind of expected NBC to take two divisional games as a way of approaching as close to parity with CBS and Fox as possible without having a conference championship. Not only did that not happen, NBC doesn’t seem to have consistently if at all picked divisional games ahead of CBS or Fox, and the somewhat random timeslots and fixed conference alignments of NBC’s divisional games have made them seem something of an afterthought. So there’s no guarantee that the league is thinking in any way close to what I lay out here, and at the very least NBC may end up never getting multiple games in any round given how few games they produce and how relatively difficult it would be for them to bring in a second commentary and production team. Still, this seems to me to be the most logical course for the league to take if it takes away the underlying justification for the conference championships to be fixed to CBS and Fox as they currently are.
One last note with implications for all of this: although Disney is reportedly targeting a piece of one of the existing Sunday packages for ABC, my prediction for what happens in the new contract is that Monday Night Football returns to ABC, while ESPN picks up a (relative to the expanded schedule, at least) pared-back Thursday night schedule with exclusively teams coming off a bye and the late Thanksgiving game on ABC. Whatever new contract the league carves out with London/Saturday/special-occasion games goes to NFL Network in the short term while being earmarked for sale to a streaming outlet in the long term (I think the creation of an extra package is more about divorcing Thursday Night Football from NFL Network than actually selling such a scattershot package to one of the other networks). Relevant to the above discussion, I also think the return of MNF to broadcast could be bad news for NBC. Before the move to ESPN and Sundays becoming the league’s main primetime night, MNF routinely beat the Sunday afternoon packages, which have turned the tables and routinely beat SNF since then; shortly after ESPN took over Mondays, they started routinely threatening and beating the all-time cable audience records until the BCS/College Football Playoff moved to cable, something that never happened on Sundays.
I could see the league giving ABC more marquee games in the early part of the season than NBC, while late in the season, giving ABC limited flexible scheduling modeled off of what the league has done on Saturday of Week 16 the past two years while also giving ABC tentative games whose ratings performance depend on player healthiness and overall team performance as little as possible (i.e., Cowboys games). NBC would want the best game of the week at least a quarter of the time, as well as at least some early-season weeks where they have a better game than ABC (including at least some Cowboys games), but the worst-case scenario could result in flexible scheduling being NBC’s only advantage over ABC, in which case NBC could push for severely weakening the protection system, potentially with no protections at all for networks in singleheader weeks. If Sunday nights are weakened enough by a resurgent Monday night, that could provide all the more reason for NBC to pick up two divisional or wild-card games in certain years, just so NBC isn’t that much more obviously the “fourth network” where the league is concerned. As it is Disney picking up two packages and decoupling Sunday afternoon packages from conferences is likely to result in NBC paying less than any of the other networks outside of whatever extra package the league creates.