Barry Wilner looks at how the NFL (National Football League)’s new broadcast deal for Thursday night games could change the American football landscape as we know it.
TV ratings for last month’s Super Bowl displayed exactly why the NFL is the king of TV in the United States – and not just in sports.
With more than 111 million viewers, Super Bowl XLVII was the most-watched event in American TV history. Advertising spots on the game went for a mere $4 million for 30 seconds, a price that will climb significantly next year, with plenty of buyers already in the mix.
So the bidding frenzy that accompanied the NFL placing a package of broadcast rights for a half-season of Thursday night prime-time games on the market last year was anything but shocking.
All the league’s network partners – CBS, NBC, ESPN and Fox – and a new one, Turner, were eager to grab the eight-game package. Both ESPN and Turner were at a slight disadvantage because they are cable-based networks, although ESPN expressed a willingness to place the Thursday night matches on ABC, its free-to-air outlet.
At one point, NBC, which already televises the hugely popular Sunday night package, thought it was going to take home the prize. But CBS, which owns the AFC (American Football Conference) rights on Sunday afternoons, swooped in with a bid worth more than $270 million to get the package in a one-year deal. The league has an option for a second year in the deal.
Under the terms of the agreement, CBS’ Thursday night matches will also be simulcast on the NFL Network, the pay-TV channel operated by the league and available in 72 million US homes, around 44 million less than CBS. The NFL Network also held onto the final half of the 2014 season package, with six Thursdays and two Saturdays on its schedule.
Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based consultancy SportsCorp, says the NFL will now determine if it will retain the Thursday night package for the NFL Network in whole or in part, or package it to sell to another cable network. And Turner Sports, the one player that does not have any NFL game programming, could be very interested in the rights.
“The league wants to see how one year of major promotion and better production values enhances interest in the Thursday night package,” he told SportBusiness International. “The NFL may determine that a second year is needed to see the results of the promotion CBS will provide.
“However, CBS is expected to be a leading candidate for the full season Thursday night package if it becomes available on a long-term and season-long basis. CBS extends its relationship with the NFL and becomes even more ingrained within the NFL by having CBS’s top commentators [Jim Nantz and Phil Simms] and technical crew providing all of the production and broadcasting capabilities for NFL-owned and controlled broadcasts.
“CBS would also be in prime position to pick up a combination free-to-air and cable package that would enhance its CBS Sports cable network, which to date has been underwhelming in its success and visibility.”
The NFL’s new Thursday night deal suggests that the league is open to looking at new ways at packaging its broadcast rights, particularly given the demand for NFL coverage from US broadcasters. The best bet for a new package would be a prime-time grouping of December matches.
The NFL has an agreement not to play on Fridays because of the clash it would bring against highly-popular high school American football across the country. However, most high school play-offs are finished by the end of November, as is the college football regular season, so the NFL could approach the various broadcasters with a new eight-game December package that includes Friday and Saturday games.
Should that become the league’s strategy, the NFL could wind up in a primetime broadcast slot every night of the week except Tuesday and Wednesday in the final month of the calendar.
However, Ganis believes there is another option: more play-off games.
“Short of expansion of the season in some manner, the likeliest new package could be additional play-off games if the NFL increases the number of teams that make the play-offs,” he says. “Though the market is relatively insatiable for the NFL, the league needs to balance games on other nights with the number of Sunday afternoon games.”
There’s also a possibility that the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association) would agree to expand the season to 17 or 18 games in exchange for major concessions on roster size and benefits. Such a move could lead to $1 billion a year or more in broadcast rights-fees – and the players receive 55 per cent of league media income.
One thing is certain: there won’t be any cutbacks in the amount of prime-time professional football available for the rest of this decade. The league has labour peace with the players, it has a cachet with fans, sponsors and TV partners that is unequalled in US sport, and it has plenty of broadcasters salivating for more live content.