Since 2006, the NFL has been in a period of stability with its media partners. From television with CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC and NFL Network (of course) to radio with Westwood One and satellite with DirecTV, the NFL has kept the same organizations in place.

From 1987 through 2006, the NFL had brought either brought on a new partner or changed networks in attempts to find new money and play them off one another. Let’s go over the changes:

  • 1987 — Created an eight-game Sunday Night package and went to cable for the first time by bringing ESPN on board
  • 1990 — Expanded the Sunday Night package to a full season by awarding TNT the first half of the season while ESPN kept the second half.
  • 1993 — Fox is awarded the NFC package after CBS had been the network dating back to the 1950’s.
  • 1998 — CBS comes back to the NFL by buying NBC’s AFC package. ESPN takes the full season of Sunday Night Football and TNT is out.
  • 2006 — NBC returns to the NFL by taking Sunday Night Football, making it the premier primetime package. Monday Night Football goes to ESPN after being on ABC since 1970. NFL creates an eight-game Thursdaay Night Football package for NFL Network which would become 13 games in 2013 and 16 in 2015.

So there had been lots of upheaval in the TV contracts. But since 2006, the NFL has decided to stand pat with its partners. It has extended the contracts with its four partners first to 2013 and then until 2021-22, so there’s been some stability with the partners on the surface.

But since 2014, the NFL has been experimenting with a few tweaks to its Thursday Night Football contract by having CBS on the games, then splitting it among CBS and NBC. For streaming, it was Twitter last year and Amazon this year.

And the league went to Yahoo in 2015 to stream one game from London and will go to Verizon this year to do the same.

There’s no sign that the league will end this type of experimentation any time soon. Through its two-year TNF TV contracts and one-year deals for streaming, the NFL is looking to see what will work and what won’t for its next deal. For the next long-term contract, where could the NFL turn?

Could we see one of the glamour TV packages go completely online? That’s unlikely, but perhaps you’ll see the NFL offer its international games in London and Mexico to a tech company either Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter or Verizon.

And perhaps the networks could partner with one of those entities to combine for Sunday, Monday or Thursday Night Football to allow for exclusive streaming while the networks air the games on TV.

One wild card could be Sinclair Broadcast Group. With its purchase of the Tribune stations that include NFL markets of Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York, combining it with its existing group that have stations in NFL cities like Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Green Bay/Milwaukee, Las Vegas (in two to three years), Minneapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington, D.C., what’s to stop it from bidding? Sinclair has plenty of network affiliates and it has a lot of money.

Sinclair has been syndicating programs (“Full Measure with Sheryl Attkisson,” “Ring of Honor”) and has offered sports through American Sports Network plus entertainment through its digital network “Comet.” Last year, it purchased Tennis Channel.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that Sinclair could make a bid. And it would certainly upset the apple cart among the networks. If it bids for Monday Night or Thursday Night Football, it would make a statement that Sinclair is a player for major sports properties.

Turner Sports has been itching to get back into the NFL since losing the Sunday Night Football contract in 1997. It even went after NBC’s Sunday Night Football package back in 2011. Perhaps Monday Night Football could be in its future if it is willing to spend.

For Sunday NFL Ticket, DirecTV’s contract position might be precarious. The negotiations for the current contract went down to the wire and while the NFL kicked the tires with Silicon Valley on the potential of distributing the pay per view package, DirecTV managed to shut cable out of Sunday Ticket again. AT&T has since taken over DirecTV and is looking for new ways to distribute content. While this might excite the NFL, it may feel the next contract could be the time to reach out for a new partner.

Cable’s window to get Sunday Ticket may have closed. This will likely be the best opportunity for Apple, Google or Facebook to step forward and take the package online and allow for more people to gain access to the pay per view package.

The NFL is looking to new technologies for ways to reach its fans. Whether it can tap the tech companies to distribute games to a mass audience is the big question. And if the league can be satisfied, it will be interesting to see the platforms used to show the games.

About Ken Fang

Ken has been covering the sports media in earnest at his own site, Fang's Bites since May 2007 and at Awful Announcing since March 2013.

He provides a unique perspective having been an award-winning radio news reporter in Providence and having worked in local television.

Fang celebrates the four Boston Red Sox World Championships in the 21st Century, but continues to be a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan.