With NFL ratings in decline, the bidding process for next season’s Thursday Night Football package provides an instructive look at how TV networks view the league’s near-future prospects.
According to Sports Business Daily, only three networks have bid for TNF, with CBS and NBC offering a lower rights fee than they paid in 2017, when they spent a combined $450 million on the package. Fox was reportedly the lone network to submit a bid that would increase the current rights fees, though the amount is unknown at this time.
SBD reports that Turner Sports (which has bid for TNF in the past) and ESPN (which had been rumored to have interest in the package), declined to make an offer. ESPN reportedly balked at the last minute after deciding “they were not able to develop a profitable business plan given the current rights fees.”
On the digital side, Amazon and Twitter, which have streamed TNF in the past, have bid once again. Facebook has opted not to bid per SBD, which reported last week that the NFL would entertain digital-exclusive offers.
What does all of this mean? Well, it sounds more likely than not that Thursday Night Football will wind up on Fox next season for the first time. Even if the NFL was not otherwise inclined to simply accept the highest offer, Fox’s bid allows the league to avoid the embarrassment of accepting a fee that is less than what it got last year. Amid concern that the sports rights bubble is about to burst, Fox seems to have rescued the NFL from essentially admitting that its product is less desirable than it was before. Rights fees may come back to Earth sometime soon, but that apparently won’t begin with this package.
Ratings for TNF fell on both networks during the 2017 season, but Fox likely views the package as a loss leader. When 21st Century Fox sold its regional sports network empire to Disney late last year, some observers wondered if the company was punting on sports altogether. Securing a new NFL package would be a forceful signal that Fox remains serious about live rights.
If Fox does win the rights to TNF, it will face questions about which broadcasters will be calling the games, how they will configure their Thursday fall primetime schedule, and how they will work around its Major League Baseball postseason slate. Last fall, the network’s Thursday primetime lineup included Gotham at 8 p.m. ET and The Orville at 9 p.m. As for the baseball playoffs, all but one game prior to the World Series aired on cable, while the Fall Classic had Thursday off.
Per SBD, the NFL will award the TNF package in the next few weeks, likely after the Super Bowl.