Handicapping the Thursday Night Football race (again)

Last week, John Ourand reported in SportsBusiness Journal about the state of the NFL’s ongoing contract renegotiations with networks. The league had hoped to have new deals in place before the start of the upcoming season, but the coronavirus pandemic has placed that on hold; however, things seem to be shaping up to mostly continue the status quo. CBS wants to keep its Sunday afternoon package, NBC wants to keep Sunday Night Football, Fox wants to keep its own package and specifically stating it wants to “keep an NFC-focused package”, presumably in contrast to the idea the league has floated in the past of decoupling the Sunday afternoon packages from the conferences. Ourand described ESPN as the wild card, as they have long groused about paying nearly twice as much as the broadcast networks for games but getting a weak package; ESPN argues that retransmission consent has leveled the playing field between broadcast and cable, and if they’re going to spend so much money they should be getting better games, though in contrast to what was reported in 2017, ESPN seems to be focusing more on upgrading its current package than dropping out or even reducing the amount it pays relative to the other networks. As has been previously reported, ESPN also wants to return the NFL to ABC and rejoin the Super Bowl rotation.

However, Ourand also noted that Fox said little about Thursday Night Football and characterized that as the likeliest package to change hands, and that became the biggest headline in other places‘ reporting on Ourand’s article. TNF, in many ways, reflects how the media landscape has changed over the past decade and how different the next contract will be for the NFL compared to the last one. After using a Thursday-night package to prop up NFL Network in the last TV deal, by 2011 the league seemed to be ready to use an early-season package of games to provide fuel for the then-raging sports TV wars by potentially serving to a new sports network what Sunday night games did to ESPN once upon a time, as can’t-miss programming that could send audiences, subscriber counts, and subscription fees into the stratosphere. Looking at how I handicapped the race at the time is like looking into a time capsule of a very different sports media landscape of 2011. My description of Turner as potentially holding “all four of the modern major sports” a) refers to TNT’s then-existent coverage of NASCAR which in turn b) treats NASCAR as one of the “modern major sports” which subsequent collapses in ratings have rendered more dubious; Comcast is described as “so dearly want[ing] to be” a “competitor to ESPN” as opposed to seemingly being content with NBCSN’s current role as a home to niche sports, which seemed like window dressing and PR spin at the time but has become substantially more plausible in the intervening decade; Fox’s interest was assumed to be for FX, which they don’t even own anymore; Longhorn Network was “only a week old” at the time, with the SEC and ACC networks only a dream of their respective commissioners; ESPN was assumed to be just as desperate to keep Comcast from becoming a competitor as Comcast was to become one, even though subsequent developments have suggested that ESPN actually values major sports being on NBCSN and FS1 as a way to keep the cable bundle held together.

That last point ultimately points to the bigger story hanging over the sports-media landscape over the past decade and how it reflects and has been reflected in how the NFL has treated Thursday nights over that span. After weighing its options for another two years, the league unexpectedly decided to put Thursday night games on a broadcast network and simulcast them on NFLN, with the broadcast network also producing NFLN’s exclusive games, starting with CBS in 2014. Meanwhile, after an experiment with having Yahoo exclusively stream a London game in 2015, the league also looked into selling the right to stream Thursday night games – specifically the games on broadcast, not the ones on NFL Network, to protect clauses in its contracts with cable companies establishing a minimum number of games to air exclusively on NFLN – to a tech company, signing a deal with Twitter in 2016 before establishing their current deal with Amazon Prime in 2017. 2016 was also the year NBC took over half of the Thursday night package with CBS retaining the other half; NFLN retained only a handful of exclusive Thursday night games, with the balance of their contractually-mandated exclusive games made up of Saturday and early-morning London games. By 2018, CBS and NBC seemed to have developed buyer’s remorse about the Thursday night package resulting from recent declines in ratings for NFL games, and sought a lower rights fee to continue airing the package, leaving ABC and Fox as the main contenders for the package, with Fox eventually signing a five-year deal, running out the clock on the league’s other television deals, to take over the entire package, paying around 33% more per game than CBS and NBC had.

It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if Fox has also developed buyer’s remorse. While selling games to a broadcast network was supposed to establish TNF as a peer to the more established primetime packages, there are several factors that limit just how good a slate TNF can actually have, mostly stemming from its placement almost at midweek with teams having only three days off from their Sunday game to their Thursday game. That’s meant that even when high-caliber teams play on Thursday night, the play is perceived as often being sloppy and injury-riddled. To balance out Thursday night’s effects on the schedule, the league generally schedules things so every team plays on three days’ rest exactly once; teams playing in the season-opening kickoff game, which doesn’t follow a regular-season Sunday, will appear on Thursday again later, and the teams playing the week after Thanksgiving are taken from the Thanksgiving games the previous week. That means that big-name teams like the Cowboys, Packers, and Steelers can only appear once each, while low-wattage teams like the Jaguars, Titans, and Bucs also have to appear once, though the worst matchups can be thrown to the NFLN-exclusive ghetto. Even when Fox made a big deal its first year about the caliber of games they were willing to send to Thursday night at the expense of its Sunday afternoon package, they could send nowhere near as many big games there as could be found on Sunday. Instituting a second bye and requiring Thursday games to be between teams that had a bye the previous week would help with quality of play in the moment and could help with game selection, but only to a point.

At this point, I should also note that by most accounts, the packages Ourand discusses are not the only ones likely to be at stake in the coming round of negotiations; the expansion to a 17-game schedule in the recently-passed CBA was done with an eye to carving out another package of games to sell for more money. However, my impression is that this new package will be cobbled together out of London games, Saturday games, and possibly games on significant holidays such as Veteran’s Day and Christmas. As such, what makes the most sense to me is that the league does not intend to sell this package to the established networks, but to use it as a way to wean NFLN from the Thursday night package and to use this new package to meet NFLN’s commitments to cable operators and as a place for their experiments in selling games to streaming providers, allowing an established network to take full control of Thursday nights and make it their own.

That has implications for how we should look at what might happen to the Thursday night package. Among other things, it suggests that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of Thursday nights once again becoming an all-cable affair, this time on a more well-known network such as TNT or ESPN. Generally, however, TNF is not the massive prize for a would-be sports giant it appeared to be in 2011, and the league’s options for what to do with it appear to be decidedly more limited, though what the league decides to do with the new “miscellaneous” package, whether they use it as I see it or extract more money from the established networks by selling it to them, will have an impact on what happens to Thursdays. With that in mind, here’s how I assess the contenders and their chances for winning the Thursday night package, from least likely to most.

Streaming-service exclusive: 400 to 1. Everything I’ve said about the challenges facing streaming services not affiliated with established media companies attempting to be the exclusive home of major sports, and what little motivation major tech companies have to splurge on sports rights to the degree leagues hope, remains true. Ourand does note that “the NFL has been in touch with companies such as Amazon, but sources expect that those discussions are focused more on smaller rights packages, akin to Amazon’s deal to stream a simulcast of Thursday Night Football.” A continuation of that simulcast arrangement is probably the only way a streaming service becomes a significant partner for TNF, which likely means either continuing the status quo or making it NFLN-exclusive again. On that note:

NFL Network exclusive (or shared with a streaming service): 95 to 1. This would basically mean the league would be selling its new “miscellaneous” package to the established networks in lieu of TNF, and even if they did I don’t see them abandoning selling TNF to someone else entirely.

Sinclair Broadcast Group: 50 to 1. Of the linear-television media companies outside the established Sports Five, Sinclair stands out as having both the means and willingness to make a wild-card bid for NFL rights, whether on Thursday nights or for the “miscellaneous” package. Discovery has a significantly larger market cap, and previously looked at putting Premier League rights on their then-Velocity network, but has no established sports or broadcast presence, and is best served positioning themselves for a post-cord-cutting future, which NFL rights would not fit well into. Sinclair, on the other hand, has a significant bank of local stations they can distribute games to even with their attempted Tribune merger falling through, and has shown plenty of interest in expanding into cable and specifically sports as well, spending the past several years establishing the Stadium (formerly ASN) multicast network, buying the Tennis channel, and most recently and notably, buying the Fox regional sports networks. Sinclair would likely need to go into serious debt to compete with what is still a significantly more well-heeled group of companies, even including the relatively smaller ViacomCBS and Fox, for NFL rights, and the league would be disinclined to accept their offer in any case, especially for Thursday nights, given how unclear and patchwork their distribution plan would be and the optics of shacking up with a group known for their conservative-leaning reports and commentaries on their news broadcasts, but if any company were to come out of left field to win the package it would be Sinclair.

CBS: 30 to 1. As discussed before, CBS seemed to have buyer’s remorse by the end of their last stint with the TNF package. The re-merger with Viacom has placed them in stronger position overall, and they would love to put more NFL games on their CBS All-Access streaming service, but they aren’t as well-heeled as most of their competitors, and the stress of saving up enough money to retain even the one package they already have led them to abandon their SEC package to ESPN. They aren’t going to splurge even more money on another NFL package, especially given the reason why winning the package the first time was a surprise to so many observers: their relatively strong Thursday nights, which even without The Big Bang Theory continues to be propelled by that show’s spinoff Young Sheldon.

NBC: 12 to 1. Same deal as CBS: they had the package before and decided it wasn’t worth their while. NBC also seemed to take TNF less seriously than the league would have preferred when they had it, apparently hiring Mike Tirico with the intention of sticking him on Thursday games rather than using their lead broadcast team as the league required (and ultimately succeeding in making him their Thursday announcer in their second season), and giving TNF a more whimsical presentation and theme music. Still, they definitely have some advantages in resources and motivation compared to CBS: thanks to their stronger cable networks and cable-operator business Comcast has money to burn on a second NFL package, and NBC is the weakest of the Big Four broadcast networks on Thursdays during football season. If the league were to sell its new “miscellaneous” package to an established network, NBC might make the second-most sense behind ESPN, and with NFL ratings improving in the last two years, cord-cutting continuing apace, and Comcast wanting more content for their new Peacock streaming service, they may decide to give TNF a second look. Still, as Ourand notes, their SNF-centric presentation to the league doesn’t bode well for their interest in anything else.

Turner/WarnerMedia: 7 to 1. Despite the many changes in the media landscape in the past decade, including TimeWarner’s acquisition by AT&T, much of what I said in 2011 about Turner, when I considered them the second-favorite to Comcast for a cable-centric Thursday night package, still applies, including their past experience and interest in a package. That interest may have waned since then; there’s little to no reporting suggesting they’re interested in getting back in the NFL game now, and while an early-season package made sense in 2011, a late-season package would run up against the NBA season if Turner were to put it on TNT (and wouldn’t be entirely devoid of conflicts with the baseball playoffs on TBS), and while Turner did raise the prospect of turning truTV into a golf-centric network when trying to win PGA Tour rights recently, they seem to have mostly given up on adding more sports rights to complement truTV’s March Madness games. On the other hand, there’s a chance the pandemic helps push the NBA into starting their season in December full-time, the company does have a pre-existing relationship with the league airing Hard Knocks on HBO, and WarnerMedia may be interested in adding more sports content to HBO Max, which could help justify its $5 premium over comparable streaming services. In the unlikely event the league decides to end DirecTV’s quarter-century run as exclusive broadcaster of the Sunday Ticket out-of-market package in favor of a streaming service or something else, keeping some game rights in the AT&T fold might help soften the blow.

Fox: 2 to 1. It’s worth noting that just because Fox didn’t talk too much about TNF in their presentation to NFL executives doesn’t mean they’re uninterested in keeping it; they may just be concerned about retaining their main NFL package (and, perhaps, keeping it NFC-centric) for the time being, with TNF following after as a result of their larger negotiations with the league. TNF continues to make a lot of sense for Fox in the aftermath of their stated pivot to live events after selling most of the company to Disney and picking up the rights to WWE Smackdown for Friday nights, and if the NFL does decouple its Sunday afternoon contracts from the conferences, TNF or a new package could be a way of making it up to Fox. However, in the aftermath of the sale Fox is in a similar position in terms of resources as CBS, and may need to pay a premium to maintain the conference affiliations on the Sunday afternoon packages (especially since it’s not just CBS that would be interested in such a thing, but NBC and potentially ABC, for which such a move could lead to them airing the conference championships on a regular basis). That might not be enough to lose TNF given the advantages of incumbency and the relative lack of other options, were it not for a company with plenty of resources and motivation for whom TNF could be the ticket to achieving their own goals and resolving their ongoing grievances with the league.

ABC/ESPN: 3 to 2. To review, ESPN would like to get ABC back into the Super Bowl rotation, which would likely mean the return of a full-time package of regular season games there. But they also would like to maintain an NFL presence on their cable network to pump up their subscriber fees and avoid endless renegotiation and legal fights with cable operators over their own NFL game guarantees. Obviously, meeting both those goals would require having two packages, and unless CBS or (less likely) Fox are completely unable to maintain their Sunday afternoon packages in the face of an aggressive bid from ESPN (and the league would probably prefer to satisfy ESPN without it being at the expense of an established partner), that means either TNF or a completely new package.

I see ESPN’s argument that retransmission consent levels the playing field between broadcast and cable networks as a better argument for ESPN paying less for its current package, or perhaps adding a second package for ABC at not too much of a premium, than for ESPN to improve the quality of games it gets for the money it pays. By this point it should be apparent to an unbiased observer looking at what the league has done across the entire history of its involvement with cable television, especially how it’s treated ESPN since 2005, that the league values the increased reach of broadcast television even when it seemed ESPN’s greater resources were more than enough to make up for it, and that’s certainly going to be the case in the age of cord-cutting. No matter what ESPN says or does, the league will always give the best games to the broadcast networks, and ESPN will be left begging just for the scraps it has. ESPN must recognize that whatever package it wins for ABC, the league is going to treat that as a superior package to whatever ESPN keeps for itself.

With that in mind, should ESPN bring Monday Night Football back to ABC (something it suggested to the league earlier in the year) and put TNF on its own network, or go the simpler route of keeping MNF on ESPN and putting TNF on ABC? Both networks’ schedules are clearer on Monday than Thursday; though ABC’s Thursdays were once a dead zone, especially at 8 PM, in the face of other networks’ ratings juggernauts for decades, today the Grey’s Anatomy-helmed night of Shondaland dramas is ABC’s strongest night and, with the end of BBT, the strongest network on Thursday night outside TNF, something with implications for ABC’s willingness to take on the NFL Draft long-term. Conversely, while Dancing with the Stars was once a ratings juggernaut for ABC on Monday nights for most of their time without the NFL, today it has fallen on bad times and not only loses badly to competing reality show The Voice, at least this past year it also lost in the demo to Fox’s slate helmed by 9-1-1. Meanwhile, ESPN has long had college football on Thursday nights, though expanded and more prominent TNF has diluted its impact and Friday has become an increasingly popular night for the power conferences (last year ESPN only had six games from power conferences on Thursdays, half of them from the ACC, and hit the same number of power conference games on Friday by the start of NBA season without even counting a nonconference game involving a power conference team, Black Friday, or the Pac-12 championship on ABC); it’s not clear how ESPN would fill its Monday nights in October between the end of baseball season and the start of college basketball.

ABC’s schedule is easier to move around than ESPN’s (as evidenced by the scheduling jiu jitsu NBC and especially CBS performed when they had TNF – indeed CBS specifically moved some of their comedies, including BBT, between Monday and Thursday), and ESPN would be perfectly justified in putting the package with the more recent broadcast television history, that the NFL seems to have treated as the superior package in recent years, on ABC, even if MNF has more potential to be a superior night given the constraints on TNF. But the NFL may have an ace in the hole that could push ESPN to return MNF to ABC – and it’s the same thing that chased it off ABC 15 years ago to begin with: flexible scheduling.

The main reason why the NFL made Sundays its main primetime package, which in turn led to NBC picking up Sunday nights and ending 35 years of Monday Night Football on ABC, was that the league wanted to impose flexible scheduling on its main primetime package so it could bail out of matchups that looked good before the season but had become complete dogs by the time they were actually played, which became increasingly common over the last few years of MNF on ABC. At the time, that meant making Sundays the main primetime package, allowing games to change time slots on the same day, easing the impact on fans, stadium and team staff, and others. Over the last two years, however, the NFL has earmarked a subset of games in Week 16 to potentially move to Saturday around the midpoint of the season. For a set of pre-identified games, then, the NFL is fine with allowing a day’s worth of uncertainty around the start time, and it’s easy to see this experiment as a potential trial run for doing the same thing with MNF, potentially starting as early as the week after Thanksgiving if not earlier (and as mentioned in the above link, the NFL has started exploring the implications of such). It would be much easier to justify instituting such a thing if MNF were on broadcast as a “major” primetime package as opposed to its current status as a cable-only franchise the league treats as an afterthought.

As further enticement, as much as MNF has more freedom to be a truly high-profile marquee package than TNF, looking at the relative ratings of the league’s various packages before and after the 2005 contracts suggests MNF should rightly be considered superior even to Sunday nights given parity of distribution. Before 2005, MNF was regularly the league’s most-watched package, outrating the Sunday afternoon packages by a substantial margin; afterwards, while SNF became the most-watched show in primetime, it regularly lags the Sunday afternoon packages, while MNF started regularly setting cable ratings records for ESPN that SNF never did despite still getting a mediocre slate, until ESPN’s BCS contract resulted in games that blew their MNF marks out of the water. To be sure, familiarity and habit with MNF being a marquee NFL night likely had something to do with that, but SNF has been on NBC for 14 years now and has never surmounted the Sunday late-afternoon window on a regular basis; there’s an exhaustion factor after watching football for close to seven hours that may make viewers less inclined to take on one more game, while MNF has Mondays all to itself allowing for anticipation to build throughout the day – something that ESPN’s promotion, lengthy pregame coverage, and even Hank Williams Jr.’s “Are You Ready For Some Football?” all hint at.

The NFL may well be justified in promising to give a back-on-broadcast MNF priority over SNF for at least some early-season matchups, potentially including the Kickoff and Thanksgiving night games as synergy with TNF on ESPN. Later on, in the mid-to-late portion of the season, MNF could have a schedule focusing primarily on teams such as the Cowboys that will be guaranteed to draw an audience no matter what their record or even what players might be lost to injury. NBC’s main advantage over ABC, then, would be the greater flexibility of their scheduling, allowing their tentative games to focus more on teams with strong records or dependent on specific players. To further mollify any concerns NBC might have, the league could maximize the power of their flexible scheduling by allowing full-fledged and unrestricted Sunday night flexible scheduling as early as Week 7, weakening or doing away with protections for singleheader networks, or codifying late-season six-day flexes like in Week 16 this year, in addition to giving them some early-season scheduling consideration, potentially including games involving high-profile teams like the Cowboys (picking over MNF in Week 1 with ABC having the Kickoff game would be one easy win). Of course, that in turn would likely piss off CBS and Fox.

Meanwhile, ESPN might be able to spin (or at least the NFL might be able to spin to them) getting every team once (minus four teams playing on Thanksgiving but not the week after) as constituting an upgrade over the MNF slate they’ve been getting (or at least justifying their slate’s weakness). This current year’s MNF slate is scheduled to have a total of 14 appearances by the 12 playoff teams from last year, plus two appearances by the Tom Brady-ified Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as opposed to the Jaguars-Titans-esque matchups they’d be shafted with on Thursdays, but it’s arguably ESPN’s best MNF slate in years and still isn’t that much better than what they’d get with TNF (and that assumes the league doesn’t add a second bye and shorten the TNF slate).

All told, the NFL might be able to convince ESPN to pay not much less than they pay now, if not more, as a proportion of what the Sunday afternoon packages pay for two packages, one of which would be Monday Night Football returned not only to ABC but to its status as the league’s premier primetime package. Regardless of specifics, though, this is the essence of what the creation of an extra package represents for the league: a way for the NFL to return to ABC, stay on ESPN, and retain a package for its own network or for sale to streaming services.

4 thoughts on “Handicapping the Thursday Night Football race (again)

  1. One thing that does need to be noted: Before NBC initially took over what then was Monday Night Football from ABC in 2005, the NFL had planned beginning with the 2006 season to have “flexible scheduling” with games moved from Sunday afternoon to Monday night. It was Disney at the time losing $150 Million a year on MNF that led to NBC getting that package that became Sunday Night Football because at the time, NBC had a strong Monday night lineup they didn’t want to mess with. The current Monday Night Football is actually a beefed-up version of ESPN’s old Sunday night package which often had bad matchups on it.

  2. I think you’ve mixed some things up. The way I remember it, the NFL wanted to move their main Primetime package to Sunday because Monday flex scheduling wasn’t thought to be possible at the time, but *ABC* had a very strong Sunday lineup anchored by Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy at the time that they didn’t want to mess with, and that’s when NBC swooped in. NBC’s Monday lineup was okay but sat behind MNF on ABC and Everybody Loves Raymond and CSI: Miami on CBS; in Those Guys Have All The Fun Dick Ebersol seems to suggest that, if anything, the problem with Monday night had more to do with The Tonight Show than their primetime lineup.

  3. Even if ABC still had a very strong Sunday lineup anchored by Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy at the time, i’d say they woulkd have went for the Sunday Night package.

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