2023 marks the beginning of the NFL’s new TV contracts including substantial changes to how flex scheduling works, not all of the details of which are known: six-day Sunday night flexing in December, Monday night flexing, and potentially even Thursday night flexing. With that will likely come substantial changes to how the Flex Schedule Watch works, which I’ve only recently started seriously thinking about… partly spurred by learning of a possible change to how flex scheduling works that could make the former format almost entirely obsolete.
During the NFL’s post-schedule release conference call (just past the 40-minute mark), Ken Fang of Awful Announcing asked about what sort of increased ability to protect games CBS and Fox had. John Ourand had already reported that CBS and Fox would be able to protect a game every week, as opposed to having to leave a week unprotected as had been the case in the past. But the response of the NFL’s VP of Broadcasting Mike North seemingly has deeper implications:
As we get later into the season, each week, before we even begin to talk about, should we look at flexing Sunday night, should we look at flexing Monday night, CBS and Fox will each get to protect one game each weekend, and that’s more than what they had in the old deal.
Now, this response is potentially consistent with what Ourand reported being the only change to protections. CBS and Fox get to protect games “before we even begin to talk about” flexing, which could mean that they’ve already submitted their protections Week 5 as they’ve done in the past. (Notably, the way that protections for games in the early flex period have been described in the past, the NFL tells CBS and Fox that they’re considering flexing out the current Sunday night game, and then CBS and Fox get to protect a game each, so this might suggest that protections have to be submitted earlier than they would for an early flex week.) But the emphasis on “as we get later into the season” and “each week” makes the most obvious interpretation that CBS and Fox are protecting games on a weekly basis, more akin to what they’ve been doing for the early flex period. And if that turns out to be the case, I might be seriously disinclined to keep doing the Flex Schedule Watch as a weekly feature on Da Blog, certainly outside the week leading up to a flex decision for a game that’s a candidate to be flexed.
There’s a reason why I’ve generally started the Flex Schedule Watch after Week 5, Week 4 in years when the protections have been due then, and why I’ve generally said little to nothing about potential early flexes until the week before a decision has to be made. Even when the exact games that have been protected haven’t been reported, the existence of protections that have already been set provides a structure that limits the universe of games that can be considered for flexing in. Future performance can always affect what games are in the running for a flex, but looking ahead can get exponentially more complicated when future performance affects not only what games the league looks at, but also what games CBS and Fox allow them to bring in, especially when their focus on big markets and name teams relative to actual record might not match that of the NFL, NBC, and ESPN (not to mention each other), and especially when it’s not clear how much the doubleheader network plans to focus on protecting its intended lead game versus the best game they have on the slate, even if they might not intend to make said game their intended lead game. Even as it’s become apparent that creating satisfactory Sunday afternoon slates in all windows, across all games, for CBS and Fox has become as much of a factor as anything else in Sunday night flex decisions, and even with all the new windows the league has created making it fairly rare that they have more than six games in a week each, I’ve never had a good enough read on all the factors that go into a satisfactory Sunday slate, or how much importance CBS and Fox place on them, to really say anything intelligent about them. It’s still useful to be able to look ahead to what the best games of the week are looking like, but without protections (and with two primetime windows now eligible for flexible scheduling) it’s harder to tell than ever before where they might wind up.
North’s sentence is ambiguous enough that barring any further clarification, I’m going to be proceeding under the assumption that CBS and Fox do in fact have to submit protections for the main flex period after Week 5. But even without that, looking back, I’m not sure my analysis has been all that useful to begin with, and this feature is probably due for a substantial overhaul anyway. My accuracy for flex scheduling predictions has been lower than I’d like, particularly when the decision isn’t completely obvious (as I said after last year’s Week 18 mess, part of the appeal of the final week of the regular season for me was the seeming deterministic nature of what game(s) would be picked, before the league ripped that away) or all but already reported, and it hasn’t helped that the slates of protected games, which leaked semi-regularly under the first contract of the flex scheduling regime, haven’t leaked at all since 2014, the first year of the last contract. A part of me wants protections to have switched to only being made at the same time as the flex decision, because it’s a lot easier for me to get a sense for what games have been protected when the decision is imminent than a quarter of the way through the season, and if I’m flying too blind then any analysis I have to offer is meaningless.
Also not helping is that in recent years (starting before the introduction of flexible scheduling to Saturday games, let alone the changes coming this year), the league has treated flex scheduling as something not specific to Sunday Night Football, with their press releases talking about scheduling changes in general with SNF only being one part of it, and that’s meant that this feature’s emphasis on SNF has seemed increasingly incongruous. Meanwhile, what analysis I’ve provided hasn’t gone much beyond simply listing the games that I consider to be options until I actually get to a week or two before the decision needs to come down, when I can get a better sense of how the upcoming results could affect the outcome. All of this is before we get to the introduction of Monday night flex scheduling, requiring me to figure out how the league is going to potentially deal with two games.
Part of the problem may be the fairly rigid structure I’ve set for the Watch that can result in analysis being split into as many as three different places, meaning more than once I’ve said that a game might be a candidate to be flexed out when I’ve listed the tentative only for the possible alternatives to be underwhelming, or I’ve considered a game a shoo-in to keep its spot only to find the alternatives are so good it’s tempting to think the league might flex the game out anyway to give those games a larger audience. One thing I’m considering is moving the listing of the games to a tabular format similar to what I do for the Playoff Picture, then providing some analysis of what’s going on that week as a whole, which also would remove the problem I’ve sometimes had of wanting/needing to make multiple paragraphs within a bullet point (which WordPress hasn’t always preserved from the editor to actually making a post). This might also limit the listing of potential alternatives to three to five games, depending on how protections get handled.
But I’ve also been toying with the notion of keeping at least some of the separated analysis and embedding it into the table, which would make it little more than a collection of images that I’d post on Twitter (or wherever I end up going as that site falls apart – more on that later this summer) every week, only resorting to longer blog posts when an actual flex decision is coming up. That’s where any potential change to how protections work would come in, since analysis embedded in a table is likely to be less comprehensive, so having protections only come in when it’s time to make a flex decision would push me to take that approach more. Later protections would also confound the issue of what to do with the early flex period, which is enough of a question mark as it is without the main flex period following the same protection rules. As I’ve said before, I’d appreciate if people provide input on what parts of the Flex Schedule Watch are actually useful so I can preserve it in any new format; sometimes I’ve felt that the value of the Watch to my commenters has been more to provide a forum for them to talk about flex scheduling than anything in the posts themselves.
In the meantime, the release of the schedule means we now know how many primetime appearances each team is scheduled for, with the new contracts allowing each team to be scheduled for a sixth primetime appearance at the start of the season and to be flexed into a seventh later. The biggest change to how I treat primetime appearance limits, though, may not have anything to do with the new contracts at all. From the start of this feature, I’ve assumed the limits on primetime appearances were primarily intended to protect CBS and Fox from losing too many games from their conference’s respective best teams to NBC, ESPN, and whatever network was airing Thursday Night Football this week. As such, I initially assumed any game that was not part of the Sunday afternoon packages was considered a primetime game, even if they may not literally be in primetime. International games on NFL Network or streaming partners counted, but not international games on CBS or Fox; Saturday afternoon games on NFL Network counted, but not the annual Thanksgiving games in Detroit and Dallas since those games have always come with the traditional Sunday afternoon packages; on the other hand, when CBS and Fox aired Thursday Night Football those games still came out of the bag of primetime appearances even when they were taken from their own packages, because TNF was technically a separate package.
Then in 2018 I started seeing signs that international games on NFL Network did not count towards teams’ primetime appearances, because the Eagles should have started the season maxed out on primetime appearances if their game in London counted towards it, but no one but me seemed to think so and there were a couple of flexing decisions that didn’t make any sense unless Fox had protected Eagles games, which they wouldn’t have needed to do if the Eagles were already maxed out. It was a bit odd, given what I thought was the justification for it (and the Eagles weren’t the only team around that time to start the season with a full six primetime appearances by my reckoning, not all of which played in London), but nonetheless in subsequent seasons I worked under the assumption that NFLN’s international games didn’t count towards teams’ primetime appearances, but I didn’t change my attitude towards Saturday games and I was fully prepared to count Amazon’s new Black Friday game, which has to air in the afternoon to avoid breaking the law, towards the count as well. But that may not be the case, because the justification for primetime appearance limits may be completely different than what I thought.
Last month VP North appeared on a Bills podcast and spent around 90 minutes taking questions from the hosts about the schedule. At around the 20 minute mark North was asked directly about appearance limits for primetime games, including what counts towards them. Here was his response:
When we talk about primetime, we’re really thinking, frankly, more about fans. You can be scheduled for six primetime games, and as a result of flex you can get moved into a seventh, and if you happen to catch, you know, four of them at home, and it’s your year to be the conference with only eight home games, you know, that’s half the schedule for the season ticket members and the fans to come out at night. You know, if it’s a West Coast team, probably not as impactful as if it happened in Buffalo, or Philadelphia, or New York, or Boston, so the “primetime”, quote-unquote, rule, is really more about fan-friendliness.
What you’re talking about, the way we look at it, is really more of an appearance rule. You know, CBS and Fox get their minimums, most of our games are still played on Sunday afternoons, but obviously, over the years we’ve expanded our footprint, we’ve got more primetime games, more mouths to feed, more games in foreign countries, you know, those appearances that are not a Sunday afternoon, there’s a limit to the number of times we can do that too, so we’re trying to balance across all the media partners.
But the simple answer to your question is, you can be in primetime six times, you can be flexed in as a seventh, that does not include Thanksgiving, that does not include a Saturday afternoon, that does not include an early morning London, you know, just by definition a primetime is our night games, but the night games are really about trying not to ask too much of our fans. Especially if we’re going to end up flexing, and then you’re going to have to change your plans and, you know, as a fan watching on television, moving a Buffalo Bills game into a nighttime slot in December with a little bit of Lake Erie weather is great to watch on TV, it’s a lot to ask of the fans so, not sure we want to do that too often. So kinda balancing, you know, what we need for our television partners and, you know, our fans watching on television, with also the impact we know we’re having on fans…
I don’t really know what to make of this. It would be tempting to say that North is just lying about appearance limits being for the fans’ sake, but it’s not like North or the league as a whole have exactly tried to obscure the idea of needing to be fair to CBS and Fox in other contexts (not like they really can considering how often people have asked “why isn’t this great game on SNF???”), and indeed North acknowledges as such even in this response. It almost sounds like there’s a separate limit on the number of games that can air outside the Sunday afternoon packages, but I’d expect such a limit to be more prominent and I’m not sure it would be that much more restrictive than the primetime limit, so I’m inclined to read that as referring to the minimum number of games CBS and Fox can have from their respective conferences’ teams introduced in the new contract. (Notably, while no source has ever given a specific number of games for such a minimum, North characterized it as “about half the games” in the post-schedule release conference call – in the published schedule each team gets at least seven games on their conference’s network, and only the Steelers and Bucs don’t have at least eight – and a seven-game primetime-appearance maximum is pretty close to that mark as it is.)
On the other hand, the way the rule actually works doesn’t quite make sense if it’s really about the fans. As was pointed out to me by the person who informed me of this podcast, if primetime appearance limits were really about minimizing the impact on fans coming to the game, it would seem to make more sense to make it a limit on the number of primetime home games a team can have; a limit of four primetime home games, with three potentially scheduled before the season, would seem to serve the same purpose that North claims the current rule does. Moreover, it’s not clear why the expansion of the schedule to 17 games, with teams getting a single extra home game only every other year, would warrant increasing the primetime appearance limit, especially since at least a quarter of the teams that do get an extra home game each year lose it right back to play an international game.
But okay, I can broadly accept that European and Saturday afternoon games don’t count towards appearance limits, but does that mean Amazon’s new Black Friday game doesn’t count either? I’m having a hard time accepting that when Amazon seems to treat it the same as the rest of its Thursday night slate. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would seem to suggest that while Saturday afternoon games may not count towards primetime appearance limits, Saturday night games do, and that’s definitely something I have a hard time accepting; while I had it suggested to me last year that NFL Network is fine with subpar games in the afternoon windows if they have an “anchor” game at night, overall it’s never felt like there’s been a distinction between Saturday afternoon and night games, with all three time slots picking from the same pool of five games and just figuring out how to arrange them. And I really have a hard time accepting that in Week 16, the game airing on NBC in the afternoon wouldn’t count towards primetime appearance limits, but the game airing on Peacock at night would!
Regardless, let’s step forward into the breach and work with what we have. I don’t know how the increase in primetime appearance limits and expansion of flexible scheduling to Monday night affects the existing 4-appearance maximum on NBC or if anything similar also applies to ESPN (which, note, has more games than NBC as a result of its occasional two-game nights to get ABC some exclusive games, though despite this no team starts with more than two games on MNF). As a result, I’ve reformatted the table to count the number of games on each of the primetime packages, with the Kickoff Game and Thanksgiving night, but not the December 23 games, being placed under the SNF column. The “flexible” column also counts the number of games each team has in flexible windows across both SNF and MNF, with a plus sign indicating games in the early flex period as in the past.
It’s also been reported that flexible scheduling may yet apply to TNF as soon as this season if Roger Goodell can convince the holdouts to vote for it at this month’s owners meetings, so teams in games that would be subject to Thursday night flex scheduling in those circumstances have a question mark in the TNF column; teams slated for a potential move to Saturday Week 15, meanwhile, get an asterisk in their total primetime game count. I’ve also added a “SuAf” column counting the number of games each team is currently scheduled for on their “normal” conference network of CBS or Fox, under the assumption that teams with low counts are less likely to be flexed in. Finally, I’m using tweets by SportsBusiness Journal and the Athletic as my baseline for how many games each team has counting towards the limit (SBJ seems to have undercounted the Saints by a game), and sure enough neither of them count Black Friday or NBC’s Week 16 game but do count the Peacock game, but I’m open to the possibility that they’re wrong.