The NFL’s flex scheduling system is relatively simple – if a late season Sunday Night Football game sucks, it’s moved to Sunday afternoon and a better game is moved back to the primetime window. Flexing can only start at Week 5 of the schedule, only two games can be flexed before Week 10, and any flexes must be announced at least 12 days beforehand. This results in a process that is pretty simple for fans to understand, and flexing doesn’t really get wild until the second half of the season.
However, flexing may become more prominent in the NFL’s next batch of TV deals, which sucks for teams, fans, and even CBS and Fox.
According to a report from the Sports Business Journal, ESPN wants in on the flex game for Monday Night Football. SBJ’s reporting states that ESPN wants the ability to flex less competitive games out of their Monday night window in favor of more competitive, relevant games later in the season. This wasn’t much of an issue in 2019, when at least one playoff team was featured in each of the network’s last seven games, but it was slightly more of an issue in 2018 thanks to a couple of turdburgers involving the New York Giants and a season-ending exercise in irrelevance between the Broncos and Raiders.
SBJ also reports that ESPN would move MNF back to ABC if it retained the rights (looking forward to the ratings comparisons touted by PR if that happens), and that if ESPN was granted the ability to flex, NBC would want more flexing flexibility for Sunday Night Football.
I would absolutely dread this possibility if I were an NFL season ticket holder, player, or executive, or even if I worked for CBS or Fox, who hold the NFL’s Sunday afternoon packages. Imagine dealing with the logistics of having your game pushed back (or forward!) 31 hours with two weeks notice. Hotels booked from Saturday night to Monday morning would either need to be slid back or extended a day (on two weeks notice, mind you), and that would create chaos for a whole lot of people involved. Practice schedules would need to be altered. CBS and Fox would theoretically get shittier games, and even if they get the ability to protect more games, their overall schedules would contain that much more filler if ESPN and NBC are given more latitude on flexing.
Also, this really has the potential to muddy the waters as to what the NFL regards as their premier package. If the best late season games that were originally scheduled for Sunday afternoons are getting bumped to Monday night, that really puts the spotlight on MNF as the NFL’s top package. This also has potential to wreak havoc on Thursday Night Football, because if you assume teams that play on TNF can’t be flexed into Monday night just days earlier, the TNF schedule will naturally be worse to avoid the possibility of a flex conflict.
This is a very tricky situation for the NFL. If ESPN is granted the right to flex games into MNF, the league runs the risk of pissing off a lot of people, only satisfying ESPN, possibly ruining TNF, and devaluing NBC’s package of games. If NBC is allowed to expand their flexing, CBS and Fox could lose even more appealing games. If the NFL does nothing, the MNF package will continue to be an afterthought, and it will be tough for ESPN to get fans excited for a worse schedule (that they’re presumably paying a lot more money for).
I’m all for getting better games in front of more people, but if the Sunday afternoon schedule (especially the early window) turns into a dumping ground for the games the league’s networks don’t want to broadcast, how does that help the NFL and its teams at all?