For the past two seasons, the NFL has drawn lower TV ratings, which isn’t news to anyone that has followed the league over the last 18 months or so. However, as the bidding for Thursday Night Football is about to begin, the NFL can expect to see more money than the previous contract.
CBS and NBC are the favorites to retain the package, but they’ll have some formidable competition with rumored bids from ABC and Fox. In addition to the television networks, there will be bids from tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook and Twitter.
But even with declining ratings, and lower viewership, the NFL will likely make more money on Thursday Night Football than it did in the last contract, despite the fact that CBS and NBC would like to pay less for TNF.
With more bidders, the chances of the NFL seeing less money are reduced. According to Bloomberg, CBS and NBC paid a combined $450 million to air eleven games on their networks this season and produce an additional six games for NFL Network, while Amazon paid $50 million to stream the CBS/NBC games.
The NFL has always liked to play the networks off one another. It’s done so dating back to the 1980s. ESPN first bid for the NFL in 1987 before the league managed to add TNT in 1991, Fox in place of CBS in 1994, and CBS in place of NBC in 1998. In 2005, ESPN took the place of ABC (before ABC Sports was folded under the ESPN umbrella) and NBC was brought back into the fold.
It looks like the NFL is now going that same route with tech companies, playing Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon off of each other for the streaming rights to TNF.
Anyone who thinks that the NFL rights bubble is about to burst has to think again. The NFL will use its leverage with the networks to increase their rights fees, even as ratings fall, simply because the league’s viewership dwarfs anything else that could be aired in the same timeslot.
CBS and NBC witnessed firsthand what happened when they lost the NFL. CBS fell to fourth place in the 1990s without the promotional benefits the NFL can provide. NBC also saw a ratings drop after CBS took the AFC package in 1998. No network wants to repeat what happened in the 1990s.
Losing Thursday Night Football would be different, given that CBS and NBC still have two of the NFL’s Sunday packages and will retain those rights through 2022. But there’s still pride involved, and the networks don’t want to see competitors air games that resided on their networks over the past two seasons.
The main question is whether CBS and NBC will pony up for TNF as ABC and Fox enter the Thursday Night Football fray. The answer to that question is still a mystery, but one thing is for sure – the NFL will see a rise in TNF fees in 2018 with multiple networks and tech companies all doing battle for a limited package.