Thursday Night Football’s history could have been much different if it wasn’t for the NHL.
You see, TNF was initially not supposed to air on NFL Network, but actually the Comcast-owned OLN. Shortly after NFL Network’s 2003 launch, when discussing carriage for the network, Comcast reportedly offered $450 million for a package of eight regular season games that would air on Thursdays and Saturdays. The games would air on OLN (which eventually became Versus, which eventually became NBCSN), and Comcast planned to use the allure of live NFL games to increase carriage charges and overall distribution for the network.
But in between those negotiations and the official debut of NFL Network, something happened. The NHL returned from its lockout, and its TV rights moved from ESPN to Comcast. Those games were aired on OLN, and the reception was not positive. There were issues with the production and coverage of the games and studio coverage, not to mention carriage of the network itself. NFL ownership reportedly pressured Roger Goodell into backing out of the handshake deal with Comcast, and that’s what happened in early 2006, resulting in Thursday Night Football becoming an NFL Network franchise.
This ended up being a defining decision for the NFL. Carriage rates for NFL Network just about tripled thanks to a contract clause. The increased fee caused carriage disputes (which continue to this day) and eventually, a years-long legal battle between the NFL and Comcast.
On the field, TNF kicked off in 2006 with five Thursday night games and three Saturday night games, a format that rolled over into 2007. While there weren’t many controversies with the 2006 slate, there were two significant ones in 2007. First, the highly anticipated Week 13 matchup between the Packers and Cowboys, who both came into Thursday night at 10-1, wasn’t viewable by many fans outside of Dallas and Green Bay because of the aforementioned carriage disputes, which led to plenty of anger from everyone involved, largely aimed at the NFL. Unsurprisingly, those on the NFL side pointed their fingers back at the cable and satellite providers who weren’t carrying the network, a story as old as time itself. Eventually, neither side caved, and the game still aired nationally on NFL Network and locally on broadcast TV. Despite the clamor, it was still the highest-rated network in most of the key demos, and ranked second behind just CBS in total viewers.
And then, there was the Patriots-Giants debacle.
Even if you have only a rudimentary memory of sports media, you probably remember the furor around this game. The Patriots went into the Week 17 matchup at 15-0, attempting to finish off a perfect 16-0 regular season. The carriage disputes across the country still lingered on, and this game was historic. It would have been ludicrous if the game was only available nationally on NFL Network. Yet, that was the plan, which the NFL stubbornly stuck to after the Patriots’ Week 16 win over the Dolphins. But following pressure from fans, cable companies, other networks, and even politicians, the NFL caved. The historic matchup was simulcast nationally on both CBS and NBC. Nationally, 34.5 million people watched the Saturday night broadcast, making it the NFL’s most-watched regular season game in over a decade. Of those 34.5 million people, 4.5 million watched on NFL Network.
TNF rolled on with minor changes. All but one Saturday game was dumped in 2008. In 2009, one of the Thursday games was moved to Friday, giving NFL Network a primetime game on Christmas Day.
And then, during Super Bowl week in 2012, the NFL announced the expansion of Thursday Night Football to 13 games. NFL Network lost its Thanksgiving game to NBC as part of their new TV deal, and for the first (and only) time, the full schedule of live games aired in primetime on Thursday. In 2013, the network got an unheard of Sunday game thanks to the Oakland Athletics hosting a playoff game the prior night. The stadium conversion pushed the Chargers-Raiders game back to 8:35 PM PT and the game’s network shifted from CBS to NFL Network, creating an evening doubleheader with NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
2014 is where TNF truly became a part of the NFL’s TV packages. At the beginning of the year, news broke that the league was looking to sell half of the TNF package to a network. This would turn TNF from a vehicle to showcase NFL Network into part of the NFL’s money making machine. Naturally, everyone wanted in. The host of bidders included CBS, Fox, ESPN (which would air games on ABC), and surprisingly, Turner Sports.
Eventually, the rights went to CBS Sports, with the network paying a reported $275 million for eight games of the 2014 season. CBS would produce all of the TNF games, and its top broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms would be on the call.
Overall, the relationship between the NFL and CBS went well in 2014, and the two parties re-upped for 2015, though the rights fee increased to $300 million for eight games.
The story took another twist in 2016. The NFL was shooting for the moon with TNF rights that year, and was also offering a stake in NFL Network to go along with the Thursday package. The usual parties were interested: incumbent rightsholder CBS, Fox, NBC, and Turner all expressed a desire to pick up TNF. Like with its previous deals with CBS, the NFL wanted another short-term deal, and this time, they’d also be shopping streaming rights for the package.
A twist emerged at the start of 2016 with a report that the NFL could split the TNF package between two partners. Weeks later, that’s exactly what happened, and CBS and NBC were declared the victors. Each network got five games under the two year deal, paying a combined total of between $450 and $500 million per season. In quick succession, the NFL went from getting $35 million per TNF game to between $45 and $50 million.
The start of NBC’s relationship with TNF got off to a rough start. Newly-hired Mike Tirico was originally supposed to call NBC’s TNF games alongside Cris Collinsworth, but the league threw its muscle around. Instead of Tirico and Collinsworth on the call, it would be Al Michaels and Collinsworth, the Sunday Night Football crew, thanks to the NFL’s desire to have each network’s A-team on the call. Tirico would instead serve as the on-site host for Sunday Night Football.
The future of TNF was thrown into question near the end of 2016 following a Pro Football Talk report could either eliminate or modify the TNF package following the 2017 season, but the league pushed back on that report, despite a continuing stream of complaints about the package.
2017 brought a bidding war for the streaming rights to TNF, and incumbent Twitter had competition from Facebook, YouTube, and the biggest potential sleeping lion in the sports streaming game: Amazon. Eventually, the sleeping giant awoke, with Amazon paying $50 million for the streaming rights to those ten TNF games. Like the previous TNF deals, this was a short-term, one-year pact, and with the joint CBS/NBC deal expiring after the 2017 season, the NFL was looking to cash in with all of the TNF rights for 2018.
For the 2018 season, the main suitor for Thursday Night Football was Fox Sports, who missed out the other times TNF came to the market. That would not happen this time around – Fox won the rights to TNF and committed to a five-year pact with the league for those rights. The cost was estimated at between $550 and $660 million per season, giving the NFL between $55 and $60 million for each of the 11 game package.
In April, with competition again at a high, Amazon once again won the TNF streaming rights. Their annual rights fee, this time on a two-year deal, increased to a reported $65 million per year for the 11 games. An added wrinkle was the inclusion of games on the Amazon-owned Twitch
With a long-term TV deal for TNF agreed to, all the NFL had to do was kick back and reap the rewards now. Fox reportedly pursued both Tirico and Peyton Manning for TNF broadcasting roles, but eventually went with standbys Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Fox also pushed for TNF’s schedule quality to improve, and it did, though it arguably couldn’t surpass Monday Night Football (let alone NBC’s Sunday night package).
But as the five year deal rolled along, TNF became less of a hot button talking point, and more of an accepted part of the NFL schedule. The longstanding issues of player safety and game quality remained, but they weren’t enough to halt the freight train of rights fees that kept rolling in.
In 2020, following the expiration of their streaming deal, Amazon re-upped with the NFL for another three years, paying a (still unreported) increase on its previous rights fee of $65 million per season. This time, not only did the company get the TNF streaming rights, but it also got the exclusive rights to a regular season game. That game in 2020 was Week 16’s 49ers-Cardinals matchup.
Also in 2020, the NFL set out to complete a new round of TV deals with its existing partners. Fox’s deal with TNF, ending after the 2022 season in concert with the other (non-MNF) agreements, was on the table. However, something funny seemed to happen: Fox didn’t seem to care about losing TNF. It didn’t seem to be a priority for the company. Given the battles over TNF rights in the not so distant past, it appeared that while Fox valued the package, it placed far more weight on retaining its Sunday slate of games.
Fox wasn’t the only suitor uninterested in TNF. At the end of the year, a report surfaced indicating that TNF was unwanted by the NFL’s TV partners. CBS, NBC, and now Fox all had a ride on the TNF bicycle, and while the first two already hopped off, Fox’s ride still had two more years to go.
A savior came in the form of TNF’s streaming partner, Amazon. When the NFL’s new TV deals were announced, Amazon won the rights to Thursday Night Football. And this wasn’t just the streaming rights: Amazon was getting exclusivity to the whole TNF package, boxing NFL Network out of the picture entirely. The cost? A cool $1 billion (or so) per season, running all the way through 2033. At 15 games per season, that comes out to about $67 million per game. Remember, in its first TNF rights deal with CBS, not even a decade earlier, TNF was pulling in about $35 million per game. While Amazon’s new rights deal doesn’t start until the 2023 season, the NFL has managed to double its per game fee in a decade. It’s quite impressive, especially when you consider that the first streaming deal, with Twitter in 2016, brought in just $10 million total.
But with Amazon becoming the exclusive home of TNF in 2023, where does that leave NFL Network? Despite its lack of Thursday games, either original run or simulcast, the network will still be required to have “no fewer than five” live games going forward, likely morning international games and Saturday games, in order to satisfy its carriage contracts with providers.
Will that modest haul of live games be enough for providers? That’s still a question. Dish and Sling dropped NFL Network and RedZone last summer, re-adding the networks barely in time for Week 1 action. AT&T U-Verse and DirecTV Now (now rebranded to AT&T TV) dropped the two networks in April of 2019 and haven’t re-added them. Comcast didn’t drop NFL Network, but did move it to a premium tier back in 2018.
With fewer live games on NFL Network starting in 2023, it wouldn’t be a surprise if more providers put their foot down and demanded to pay lower fees to carry NFL Network. If that happens, combined with the slow churn of providers dropping the network altogether, where would that leave NFL Network in the long run?
In two decades, NFL Network and Thursday Night Football have seemingly come full circle. The TNF package was created, in part, to drive providers to carry NFL Network. With TNF completely departing NFL Network for Amazon in 2023, providers will need a new carrot dangled to continue carrying NFL Network, especially in this era of cord cutting, penny pinching, and streaming. Who even knows what that carrot will be, but nothing can compare to an extra night of NFL games, and it’s hard to see a fourth regular gameday being added to the NFL’s schedule any time soon.