There are plenty of complaints out there about the NFL’s broadcasting policies, but one particular area may see less complaints going forward. That would be the singleheader protection rule. The rule means that if a local team is playing at home on CBS or Fox, the other network cannot show another game in that market at that time even if they have the doubleheader. That’s particularly problematic in areas with two local teams, such as New York, Los Angeles, and the Baltimore/Washington area, as one of those teams is usually at home in a given week (and this prevents fans of, say, the Giants, from watching another NFC East clash on Fox if the Jets happen to be playing at home on CBS).
The NFL relaxed the rule last year, allowing local networks to show up to two games they previously wouldn’t have, and as per Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal, they’ve now relaxed it further to four games annually:
Markets will now be permitted to “break” this rule up to four times this year, up from two times last year. Owners approved the change unanimously today. NFL Exec VP/Media Brian Rolapp: “At the end of the day, it just means more football for more fans, and more people will get more games on Sunday.” The rule was already on the way out, but liberalized distribution rules are likely to take on greater importance with in-person attendance in many markets appearing unlikely because of the pandemic.
This is a particularly important tweak for fans in those two-team markets, but it has some impacts elsewhere as well. For example, this matters to fans of an out-of-town team who don’t have Sunday Ticket and can’t watch their team on even mostly-national broadcasts if the local team happens to be playing at the same time on the other network. Of course, this doesn’t solve all of the overall challenges with the NFL’s TV setup, but it’s a further step in loosening its restrictions. And it’s a further step in bolstering the ratings for the NFL’s biggest games, with some of those games (perhaps the Fox late games in particular) now available to more people. (And interestingly enough, it’s maybe another blow to the future of Sunday Ticket, which is already facing lots of questions; it’s not a huge one, as not everyone’s impacted by this particular rule, but this means that some fans in some markets will be able to watch more top NFL games on network TV rather than on Sunday Ticket, and maybe that’s enough to convince some people not to sign up for the extra service.)
All in all, this isn’t the biggest change in the world, and the initial loosening of this rule last year (going from zero to two exceptions annually) was a more significant step than going from two to four. But going from two to four is still significant, and it will definitely matter to some fans. And it’s also interesting to see unanimous agreement from the owners on this, as there’s a whole lot that the NFL’s owners don’t agree on. Owners unanimously voting to expand exceptions to the singleheader protection rule suggests the times are at least somewhat changing in the NFL broadcasting world.