While the jubilation over the potential end or minimization of Thursday Night Football may have been slightly premature, the property’s future is still far from assured. After Mike Florio reported at Pro Football Talk Sunday that “per a source with knowledge of the situation, the league will be considering the possibility of ending, or at least limiting, Thursday Night Football,” the NFL struck back against that Monday, saying “We are fully committed to Thursday Night Football, and any reports to the contrary are unfounded.” However, that doesn’t mean that TNF will continue in its current form until the end of time, and some of the changes Florio’s report envisioned could still come to pass.
What the NFL statement actually means is somewhat up in the air. As Florio’s initial report noted, the current deal with CBS and NBC ends after 2017. “Fully committed” may just mean that no changes are anticipated until then, or even that no changes are in the works at this very moment. “Fully committed to Thursday Night Football” could also somewhat apply to switching to a package that only runs from Thanksgiving on and only includes better games, one of Florio’s scenarios; that’s still Thursday Night Football.
The history of the Thursday Night Football franchise is worth pondering here as well. TNF debuted in 2006 on NFL Network as part of eight overall second-half games (along the lines of what the limited package Florio mentioned), five on Thursdays and three on Saturdays, and it started as more of an attempt to give NFL Network leverage in carriage battles (it’s much harder to not pick up a channel that has live game content). Those carriage battles have mostly been won now, but TNF has stuck around, going to more Thursdays and less Saturdays in 2008 and starting as soon as the season’s second week in 2012. The 2014 move to split the package between CBS and NFL Network and then the 2016 move to further divide it between CBS, NBC and NFL Network have brought in more viewers and more revenue than games on NFL Network alone, but the question now becomes if maintaining TNF is worth it given the blowback subpar games there have created against the NFL’s brand.
Of course the NFL isn’t going to publicly back off from Thursday Night Football at this point, especially with over a year still to run on the current broadcast deal. That would be undermining their broadcast partners, and it’s notable that both CBS and NBC are important partners based on their Sunday packages as well, not just TNF. It seems likely that the league will be taking the close look at TNF Florio mentioned, though, and pondering how to proceed in the future. Could that lead to a similar deal to the current one? A streaming-only deal with someone like Twitter or Amazon? A reduction or elimination of TNF? All of that still seems possible, and there’s some rationale in favor of each of those moves; it’s worth noting that the marketplace may be very different next year, too. We’ll see which avenue the league eventually pursues, but it’s worth keeping in mind that while “fully committed” are nice words, they’re not actually committing the NFL to all that much right now.