One of the biggest sports media stories to follow during the months and weeks to come will be the next TV rights agreements for the NFL. ESPN’s deal with the league is up after the 2021 season, while the contracts for CBS, Fox, and NBC will expire after 2022.
The NFL was hoping to reach new deals with its network partners by the end of this year. According to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, that might not happen.
Yet it appears that each network prefers to maintain the status quo. Why mess with a business arrangement that’s working so well for all involved? And if the COVID-19 shutdown has demonstrated anything about television, it’s how vital live sports are to keeping the machine moving.
Ourand details the timeline of TV executives meeting with the NFL on June 3 (with ESPN doing a video conference call the next day), and the focus for each over-the-air network was keeping their Sunday football packages. But a curious takeaway is that Thursday Night Football wasn’t regarded with the same importance.
“Fox’s executives did not spend much time on ‘Thursday Night Football.’ The broadcaster may have an interest in renewing its Thursday night deal, but it quickly became clear that Thursday night was far less of a priority than Sunday afternoon.”
So if there are any changes in the next NFL TV packages, it’s likely to be with Thursday Night Football. Rights to the Thursday night telecast have bounced among CBS, NBC, and Fox since 2014, with Amazon securing streaming rights for the telecast in 2017.
TNF has drawn strong ratings for Fox through the past two seasons, earning an average of 14.9 million (including the NFL Network simulcast). Ratings for the Thursday telecast have increased six percent during that span. But Fox spent $3.3 billion for five years of TNF and may prefer to devote that kind of money to a new Sunday package that will be more expensive.
If Thursday Night Football then goes up for grabs, where could that package end up? Ourand reports that ESPN wants to upgrade its arrangement with the NFL. Would TNF be preferable from Monday Night Football? It’s become more of a marquee telecast, often with better matchups. Or could this be ABC’s ticket back to televising the NFL and getting into that coveted Super Bowl rotation? MNF on ESPN, then TNF on ABC (simulcast on ESPN+)?
Perhaps CBS would want to get back in the Thursday night business, maybe with interest in nabbing the streaming simulcast from Amazon for CBS All Access. The same could be said for NBC, which could eye that TNF simulcast for its recently launched Peacock streaming platform.
Could Turner be the network to keep an eye on here? Probably not, since the NBA is entrenched on TNT Thursday nights. Would a Thursday night NFL telecast on TBS be viewed as hurting the company’s own business? And Ourand didn’t mention Turner in his report.
But there would only be three months of Thursday night conflict on the network from October through December. Maybe getting the NFL would be perceived as worth the trouble, especially if it meant sucking up most of the sports TV oxygen on a valuable night for five or six weeks.
The money TV networks push across the table to the NFL will attract most of the headlines when new agreements are reached. But those looking for change may only find intrigue in that Thursday Night Football package.