Category Archives: Sports

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 5

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-1, and the Patriots probably resemble the team with three wins more than the one with two losses.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX). (Texans-Rams likely does not need to be protected, to avoid trying to host a night game at the LA Coliseum; this also affects other Rams home games below.)
  • Other possible games: Saints-Bills, Jets-Bucs, and Vikings-Skraelings are all 3-2 v. 2-2 games, with Texans-Rams slightly worse at 3-2 v. 2-3.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 4-1 v. 2-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Natives-Saints and Bucs-Dolphins pit two 2-2 teams against each other, and that’s about it without going to more 2-3 teams like the Cowboys.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-1 v. 3-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games, though the only reason there aren’t two winless teams on the Turkey Day slate is because they played each other. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d be a very real threat for a move to Sunday night. Bucs-Falcons is also a game Fox might have protected if I was wrong about their protection and that would be a flex candidate. Saints-Rams would be an option if a night game at the Coliseum was an option. That leaves basically CBS’ unprotected game without going to teams below .500.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 4-1 v. 3-2, and if the Seahawks play more like the Seahawks of old from now on it’ll be very difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Vikings-Falcons and Lions-Ravens are the most attractive options, while Panthers-Saints, Bucs-Packers, and Broncos-Dolphins involve teams at 2-2 playing teams above that mark. Chiefs-Jets would also be an attractive option if the Chiefs weren’t still maxed out.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-2 and for the AFC North lead if it were played today.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If the NFL did want to beg out of this game, there’d be no shortage of options: Vikings-Panthers, Jets-Broncos, and Seahawks-Jaguars are all matchups between teams above .500, as would Eagles-Rams if Coliseum night games were an option. Lions-Bucs is more of a dark horse.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 2-3, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks is the strongest game on the slate, with Jets-Saints and Dolphins-Bills a bit behind.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 4

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only this weekend’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). NBC appearances for all teams: KC 2, NE 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), NYG 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), DAL 3 (2 flexible), GB 3 (1 flexible), ATL 2 (1 semi-flexible), OAK 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), WAS 2 (1 flexible), IND 1, SEA 2 (1 flexible), HOU 1, DEN 2 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), PIT 3 (1 semi-flexible, 2 flexible), DET 1 (semi-flexible), MIA 1 (semi-flexible), PHI 2 (flexible), BAL 1 (flexible), MIN 1. All primetime appearances for all teams: KC 6, NE 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), NYG 4 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), DAL 5 (2 flexible), GB 5 (1 flexible), ATL 5 (1 semi-flexible), OAK 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), WAS 5 (1 flexible), IND 4, SEA 4 (1 flexible), HOU 4, DEN 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), PIT 6 (1 semi-flexible, 2 flexible), DET 4 (1 semi-flexible), MIA 4 (1 semi-flexible), PHI 5 (2 flexible), BAL 4 (1 flexible), MIN 4, NO 2, LAC 2, ARI 2, CHI 3, TEN 2, CAR 2, CIN 2, TB 2, JAX 0, all other teams 1.

Starting this year I will only talk about early-flex games in this space if they’re actually bad enough to think about flexing out.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 2-2 v. 3-1, and it’s hard to see the Patriots truly being that mediocre for long.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts or Texans-Rams if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Along with Texans-Rams, Saints-Bills, Jets-Bucs, and Vikings-Skraelings are all games where the worse team is 2-2, and that’s about as good as you can expect.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 3-1 v. 2-2, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Cardinals-Texans and Natives-Saints are two matchups of 2-2 teams, while Bucs-Dolphins is effectively equivalent to that at 2-1 v. 1-2.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-1 v. 3-1 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games, though two of the teams on the Turkey Day slate are winless at the moment. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d be a very real threat for a move to Sunday night. Bucs-Falcons is also a game Fox might have protected if I was wrong about their protection and that would be a flex candidate. Besides CBS’ unprotected game, Saints-Rams is also an option.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 3-1 v. 2-2, but as Mike Tirico pointed out on Sunday’s pregame show, the Seahawks have a habit of always starting relatively slow and catching fire late.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Except for Giants-Raiders, all of Fox’s games (Vikings-Falcons, Panthers-Saints, Lions-Ravens, Bucs-Packers, and Rams-Cardinals) involve teams at 2-2 (2-1 in the Bucs’ case) playing teams above that mark. Among CBS’ games, Chiefs-Jets also fits that bill, but see the Chiefs’ number of primetime appearances again, and Broncos-Dolphins does as well, while Texans-Titans pits two 2-2 teams against one another.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 2-2 v. 3-1, so not great and this rivalry isn’t as hot as in Ray Lewis’ heyday, but it can still attract an audience.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Eagles-Rams would pit two teams above .500 if Fox left it unprotected, as would Lions-Bucs. Vikings-Panthers and Jets-Broncos (the latter of which is a long shot for CBS’ protection) pit teams at .500 against teams above it, while Titans-Cardinals is a battle of .500 teams.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 2-2 v. 2-2, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks is the strongest game on the slate. Jets-Saints and Cardinals-Trumps are battles of two 2-2 teams. Dolphins-Bills has potential as well.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

What Happens If Disney Gets Blacked Out On Altice?

If it weren’t for the crappy state of everything else going on in the country (including Ajit Pai seemingly being about to dismantle net neutrality) it would be an exciting time for the evolution of the TV industry, as the cable bundle looks like it’s about to be on its last legs. Earlier this month, reports came out that Viacom, Discovery, Scripps, AMC, and A&E were joining forces to form their own, relatively cheap, skinny bundle called “Philo” – the inclusion of the last of which was very surprising to me, as A&E is co-owned by Disney and Hearst, which also (separately) co-own ESPN, and just the other four companies forming their own skinny bundle is the last thing ESPN wants. But Disney and ESPN have a bigger fight on their hands. Altice, the French conglomerate that now controls Cablevision and Suddenlink, hass Cablevision’s old carriage agreement with Disney expiring after this weekend. Disney has faced contentious carriage agreements with the likes of DirecTV and Dish in recent years, which have gotten certain elements of the media worked up over the possibility of showdowns with companies that had ramped up their rhetoric about the high price of sports and stood up to regional and college sports networks, but in the end the power of ESPN was too much to resist and the companies sucked up and signed up for another round of fee increases and adding the Longhorn and SEC networks. But just days before the expiration of the agreement, there seems to be no end in sight to the Altice standoff, and plenty of signs that Disney’s luck and indispensability has run out, not just with Altice but with other cable operators as well.

Were it not for these two stories, I wouldn’t normally think the decline of the cable bundle has reached a tipping point. Large majorities of people still subscribe to the cable bundle… but they’ve now fallen below the 80% mark, and it’s clear that things have reached a critical moment. Disney trying to add yet another high-priced regional ESPN spinoff, one with significantly less value than the SEC Network, certainly looks like an ill-timed misstep that sent things spiraling down further (and Disney wants Altice to add not only ACC Network to a fairly basic package in New York City, but SEC Network as well). On the other side, Disney has announced the launch of OTT Disney and ESPN services, with the latter being limited to events that won’t hurt the value of ESPN to cable providers too much to lose but the former being stocked by Disney pulling its movies off Netflix a relatively short time after signing a big deal to put them on. Continuing the return of sports to broadcast, Fox will air the majority of next year’s World Cup matches on its broadcast network, meaning if the United States makes it, matches that gave ESPN gerbonkers ratings in the last two World Cups will air on broadcast where they belong, possibly even on weekdays. And while I’m still, in general, skeptical of streaming services’ ability to win major sports rights while also justifying their cost, in the wake of their Thursday Night Football deal, it’s hard for me to argue against the notion that Amazon at least has the potential to overcome most, though not all, of the obstacles I worry about (the fundamental problem of streaming being inferior to deliver live events than real linear channels, which bedeviled Amazon this past Thursday, is in my view ultimately insurmountable) to become a real player for mid- to lower-tier sports events.

There’s also the recent history of carriage standoffs to consider. Before its acquisition by Altice, Suddenlink kept Viacom channels off its systems for nearly three years, with Cable One possibly still leaving those channels off their lineups, and both companies made clear that they were just fine without Viacom’s networks. Viacom is on the expensive end of the non-sports four and, at least at the time, didn’t have as many shows with serious buzz as the others, so it could have been considered more expendable than most other Big Nine members. By dropping Disney channels, Altice would be risking a significantly larger backlash, not only from sports fans but from fans of Disney Channel’s kids shows, especially with the Yankees playing their wild-card game on ESPN Tuesday. But if it coupled dropping the Disney channels with a significant drop in customers’ bills, it could gain more than that in goodwill from non-sports fans.

Meanwhile, sports and Disney fans aren’t as out of luck as in the carriage disputes of the past, thanks to online cable providers like Sling TV. No service carrying ESPN would cost less than the $10-15 that’s likely to be the most Altice would refund customers; Altice’s moves wouldn’t totally break up the cable bundle unless they dropped multiple companies’ programming. But what would hurt Altice, but is likely to hurt Disney more in the long term, is if customers dropped Altice’s TV service entirely in favor of Sling or a more comprehensive service like PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, YouTube, or Hulu. Based on listed prices, dropping down from a TV+Internet bundle to just Internet should save $20/month with Optimum for New York customers; throw in fees charged only to TV customers, and that could be enough to justify getting one of the online bundles for $35/month (and that’s assuming they don’t drop Optimum entirely for Verizon FiOS). Sports and Disney fans that drop Altice’s TV services entirely are no longer directly putting pressure on Altice to add them back to the lineup. If that gives Altice enough backbone to leave Disney off the lineup entirely, especially if people with no investment in those networks start telling them not to restore them and threatening to quit if they do (especially once Philo launches), it puts Disney, and ESPN more specifically, in a very tight spot financially, as well as in terms of standing up to other providers, with deals with Verizon, AT&T/DirecTV, and the old Time Warner Cable deals now controlled by Charter looming over the next two years.

In 2011, Dish chairman Charlie Ergen suggested there was room for a cable or satellite operator to position themselves as a cheaper non-sports alternative; today he thinks Altice can survive without ESPN, and he certainly must be rooting for it. If Altice is successful at saying no to Disney and ESPN, it gives other providers, as well as potential future online providers, more confidence to say the same. Altice is not one of the larger providers, but if they manage to weather the storm and spend two years or more without ESPN on their lineup, Disney will suddenly look like an emperor with no clothes, and will find it hard for their demands to be met when they enter negotiations with AT&T, Charter, and further down the line, Comcast and Dish, and will find it especially difficult to get the ACC Network off the ground. Couple that with the pending launch of Philo representing the one thing Disney hoped to avoid by staying shackled to the cable bundle, and suddenly there’s a very real possibility that ESPN goes full-on direct-to-consumer with all of their content before the end of the decade (and indeed A&E’s inclusion in Philo starts to look more understandable if Disney thinks the cable bundle is already collapsing). Sports fans would probably still need Fox, NBC, and Turner’s networks to get all the sports they want and need, at least in the short term, but a successful standoff with ESPN would also allow cable operators to show down with those companies for lower fees and lower penetration for expensive regional sports networks. It’s possible the sports four-and-a-half will start to find that clinging to the old cable bundle model will bring down their smaller and non-sports networks more than prop them up, making a sports-specific bundle an increasingly viable proposition. At that point, Disney might just bail on cable operators and even their would-be competitors and seek to salvage whatever revenue (and data) they can for themselves.

Even if Disney and Altice reach a deal, it could still be bad news for Disney, ESPN, and sports leagues. Disney wants to ratchet up its fees and restore some of the coverage lost when they gave providers flexibility to offer skinny bundles. If Disney takes lower fee increases than they’re hoping for and keeps ESPN at present levels of penetration to avoid the catastrophe of being outright dropped, they’re going to have to budget less money for production and rights fees. Look for more layoffs to come down the pike and ESPN to scale back on what they’re willing to bid for rights as they come up early in the next decade. And the ads Altice has been running have arguably already increased awareness of just how much of their cable bill is being passed on to ESPN regardless of how much or little customers watch it, meaning if a deal is reached without ESPN being dropped, there could be a deluge of customers dropping service.

Keep an eye on how this situation develops over the next couple days, because no matter what happens, it could well mark the point of no return for the sports cable boom, as well as the beginning of the end for the cable bundle as we know it, and the start of shaping whatever comes next.

For Fans of Lesser Sports Properties, the Party is Over

Back when I was posting more regularly about the sports TV wars – in part because the wars themselves were burning brighter and the stakes seemed higher – a point I routinely made was that, as good as the wars would be for the largest, most popular entities with content that could attract large audiences to sports networks, they would be an absolute boon to lesser entities that might not otherwise attract much of an audience at all, or even enough to justify their existence, as the glut of sports networks looked for properties to fill out the rest of their time. Truly tiny leagues and conferences didn’t see much of a bump from the wars (a TV deal with CBS Sports Network only kept the UFL afloat for an additional half season) but lower-mid-tier leagues, the sort that could attract audiences approaching a million on broadcast and regularly top several hundred thousand on networks the size of FS1 and NBCSN, saw their visibility vastly increased. As I explained in my book The Game to Show the Games (and as expanded upon here previously) no sport benefited from the glut of sports networks more than soccer, even before the sports TV wars properly became a thing, as a veritable soccer boom enveloped English-speaking America driven in large measure by coverage of the English Premier League on Fox Soccer Channel and its predecessor Fox Sports World, driving NBC to not only break the bank for Premier League rights but to make it as much of a tentpole for NBCSN as the NHL.

If no sport benefited more than soccer from the sports TV boom, no single deal demonstrated the power of TV to elevate a sport more than the Premier League’s deal with NBC. NBC’s high-quality coverage, semi-regular games on broadcast television, and dizzying array of games on NBCSN only scratched the surface of what NBC would do for the Premier League in America. Perhaps more remarkable was NBC’s decision to place all the games it couldn’t fit on its linear networks on an array of “Extra Time” channels and available for streaming for any subscriber to a cable package that included NBCSN. American viewers could watch every single Premier League game live, something people in England itself couldn’t say, if only because the Premier League contracts there were arranged to protect gate revenues, especially at lower-tier clubs.

This week, NBC announced that those games not airing on NBC’s linear services would now be available on a “Premier League Pass” subscription service, no longer free with NBCSN. The headline on Re/code touting this deal focused on the “no cable subscription required” aspect of the service, which is a bit disingenuous considering games on NBC’s cable networks aren’t part of the deal, but not really any different from people who get ESPN3 from their Internet provider (or who sign up for ESPN’s long-delayed direct-to-consumer offering) and get to watch mid-major college sports and less popular events without access to ESPN’s actual linear networks. Despite its uselessness to cord-cutters, though, I was surprised to see headlines on more soccer-focused sites bemoaning what a big step backward this was for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League, with Vice Sports going so far as to claim that the move of what it admits is “the crappiest third” of Premier League games to a premium service amounts to NBC “kill[ing] America’s EPL Golden Age“.

Certainly for Premier League fans used to signing up for the cable bundle, this is a huge step backwards. $50 is a relatively steep price, though for an entire season of Premier League games it compares favorably to American sports leagues’ pay-per-view/out-of-market/streaming services, which often top $100. And it’s not like Premier League fans can save money by just signing up for Premier League Pass, since again, it doesn’t include games on NBC’s linear networks. But it’s hard to declare the loss of the least interesting, most perfunctory matchups, that were already consigned to streaming and overflow channels, as completely undermining the visibility and value of the Premier League on American television, especially since given the ongoing shifts in the media landscape, a move like this may have been inevitable. Even if Extra Time wasn’t really “too good to be true” even at the time, setting aside specialized channels and propping up the cable bundle even more was becoming difficult to justify. With Premier League Pass, NBC is pivoting towards the sports distribution system of the future, one that more specifically targets fans of various sports, that sports networks in general will have to pivot towards.

As such, I’m not sure I agree with Richard Deitsch that this is entirely about monetizing a more expensive Premier League rights deal; if so it would raise the question of whether the deal was really worth it to begin with. I think there’s a bigger picture to look at here. Going back to its days as Versus, NBCSN has staked its territory around providing comprehensive coverage of sports that might get shorter shrift at ESPN or Fox, and that’s a territory that lends itself well to providing services oriented directly at those niche sports fans. The NBC Sports Gold service already sells access to many of those niche sports bundled together for up to $70 a year, but depending on how many butthurt Premier League fans (especially those that have attached themselves to teams further down the table) swallow their pride and pony up, Premier League Pass could easily make them more money. I could easily see NBC as laying the groundwork for the day it may ultimately have to shutter NBCSN in its current form and fold many of its rights into networks like CNBC or USA as the cable bundle finally utterly collapses, folding together many of its mid-to-lower tier rights into a direct-to-consumer offering targeted at the niche sports fans NBCSN serves today. I may have felt Fox was better positioned to run down ESPN than anyone else (certainly Fox themselves did) before it turned out Fox didn’t quite have the quality of rights to convince people to turn to FS1 on a regular basis, and I’m skeptical that anyone other than ESPN will survive the collapse of the cable bundle and shift to Internet streaming, but NBC may be better positioned than any of the alternatives to pivot to marketing a national service directly to the consumer, offering a simple value proposition to fans of niche sports (ignoring the question of the fate of local sports and what it would mean for Fox and NBC). With Premier League Pass, NBC is building the groundwork and subscriber base for whenever the day may come when NBC Sports Gold has to become its main offering to sports fans.

Ultimately, I think the effect of the Internet will be to collapse any intermediate distinctions preventing a step down from the ESPN level directly to pure streaming, with the only distinction being between the resources and quality poured into that streaming, with the likes of Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and potentially Google on the high end, down to lesser offerings oriented towards more niche audiences like Premier League Pass, all the way down to free streams where there’s no room for monetization and no budget for any but the most rudimentary setups at all. For the truly tiniest leagues, I’m already seeing signs of streaming, of various degrees of monetization, being a boon to them; when the number of channels is effectively limitless, there’s little reason not to put up a stream of every game you have so long as you have the resources for it, especially when it comes to leagues popular in their home countries that just need to export their feeds to the States. But for these mid-tier leagues that have become used to comprehensive coverage subsidized by non-sports fans who continue to subscribe to the cable bundle, the party is over. Even if you believe that the most apocalyptic scenarios still involve the vast majority of Americans continuing to subscribe to some sort of comprehensive cable bundle for the foreseeable future, there’s still clear evidence of the fear of cord-cutting and sports-free packages driving sports networks to reduce their investment in mid-tier properties that don’t drive enough viewership and subscriptions on their own to justify the level of expense the cable bundle has inflated their perceived value to. Services like Premier League Pass are the first sign of sports networks sending a message that it’s time for sports fans to pay more of their fair share of the boom of sports television that has erupted in recent years.

Is ESPN Giving Up on IndyCar?

If you’ve been paying more attention to the sports media landscape than I’ve been covering for you, you know that ESPN this past week let loose with a barrage of layoffs, firing over a hundred people including a number of prominent on-air and online personalities. Obviously, this is in part ESPN attempting to trim the fat for a cord-cutting future, one where live event rights to compel people to sign up and stay signed up for cable, or any future direct-to-consumer offering, are the most important thing for the future of the business and all else is just gravy, something only to be risked if they make enough money to justify it, a future where linear television exists primarily as a conduit for popular live events and anything else is just filling time. Hence, heavy cuts to ESPN’s journalism operations, which don’t help ESPN collect higher subscriber fees or appreciably boost ratings, and studio analysts, which are mainly relevant if at all as programming bracketing live games, especially with highlight shows like SportsCenter being less relevant with highlights being widely available online, but comparably fewer cuts to live game analysts and announcers. But not all sports are created equal. ESPN makes these cuts on the heels of a multi-million dollar agreement with the Big Ten that hasn’t even been officially announced yet, one that to an outside observer makes little sense in the context of the layoffs, but which ESPN sees as critically important, as high-value programming driving subscriptions and eyeballs and which, even splitting the contract with Fox, deprives Fox or any rival of that programming that might bestow money and credibility on them and potentially allow them to move closer to on par with ESPN (the impending launch of the ACC Network, on the other hand, looks all the more questionable). But less popular sports, especially those sports that require a large amount of personnel separate from or superfluous to your other sports, might not be worth the expense.

To my knowledge, no more than two play-by-play men have been confirmed to be fired as part of the layoffs, one of them being longtime auto racing announcer Allen Bestwick:


Before Bestwick, the last two announcers of the Indianapolis 500 were Marty Reid and, in an infamous one-year experiment marred by over-emphasis on Danica Patrick, Todd Harris. Neither is still with ESPN. During ESPN’s most recent stint covering NASCAR races, the three lead announcers for the Sprint Cup series were Dr. Jerry Punch, Reid, and Bestwick. Punch is also among those that were fired. As Bestwick’s tweet indicates, he’ll continue to serve as a lame duck for the rest of the IndyCar season, including the 500 (as will Punch), but after that? Quite possibly the only personality ESPN has left with auto racing announcing experience is Paul Page, who called the 500 all but three years from 1988 through 2004, and who currently is reduced to calling the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and nothing else. Even discounting the play-by-play spot, if ESPN can’t replace Punch the 500 will have fewer than three pit reporters for the first time at least since ABC started airing it live, and hiring someone new would seem to defeat the point. And next year is the last year of ABC’s contract to air a grand total of five or six races, which raises the question: why would ESPN invest money in a sport when they just fired its play-by-play man and best pit reporter (as well as main alternative for the play-by-play spot) as part of attempting to cut their expenses to the bone?

ABC has felt like it’s been on its way out as a television partner of the IndyCar Series since the then-Versus network took over cable coverage in 2009; that it would renew its relationship in 2011, after the Comcast-NBC merger that would have allowed Comcast to unify coverage under one roof if ESPN didn’t want to, was somewhat surprising, but with the subsequent departure of NASCAR and the NHRA from ESPN leaving those five-six IndyCar races on ABC as the only motorsports content ESPN produces, it may be an expense ESPN feels it can’t afford when only the 500 truly produces appreciable numbers, even with Bestwick and Punch broadening their repertoire into college sports in recent years. About the only reason to keep it around is to keep ABC’s status as the only television partner the 500 has ever had, but that hasn’t stopped many other longstanding associations from changing hands in recent years – perhaps most pertinently, the move of golf’s British Open first to cable as the only home of live coverage and then to NBC, ending its long relationship with ABC and bringing major golf back to NBC after that network had its own long relationship with the US Open ended in favor of Fox. It’s easy to see ESPN throwing up its hands and letting NBC have full rights to the entire series, including the Indy 500 with coverage potentially hosted by Bob Costas or Mike Tirico, and Bestwick and Punch joining NBC’s team for IndyCar, NASCAR, or both. ESPN’s relationships with the British Open and NHRA were both bought out a year early as the new contracts began, and ESPN attempted to do the same with NASCAR; it’s easy to surmise that ESPN would not only be willing to give up IndyCar rights but surrender the final year of its deal similarly, and thus leave ESPN without any motorsports coverage for the first time practically since its founding.

All this brings me to one last important point. I’ve mentioned before what a boon the sports TV wars have been for smaller leagues and conferences that have been able to get television exposure and revenue that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, even if on relatively obscure networks. Now, however, the most immediate victims of cord-cutting might be those smaller leagues – or perhaps more to the point, mid-tier leagues like IndyCar that don’t move the needle but attract considerable expense regardless. If the firing of Bestwick and Punch suggests ESPN won’t even come to the table in the next IndyCar negotiations, IndyCar’s best bet to attract much of a rights fee in its next contract might be dependent on whether or not Fox is interested in sweeping in and picking up the rights, and Fox may balk at airing the 500 and risking a rain delay that bumps up against the NASCAR race the same day. (NBC also airs Formula 1 from Monaco the same day, but that may be less of an issue.) Otherwise, barring a surprise CBS-Turner combined bid, NBC might be able to essentially name its price, similar to where it found itself with NASCAR when ESPN and Turner abandoned ship on the sport. ESPN’s newfound frugality is very bad news for entities that don’t offer enough high-quality content to justify increased rights fees or a significant number of maintained subscriptions. It reduces the number of outlets available to them and forces them to find shelter with entities that remain vulnerable to suffering even more than ESPN if the linear cable market contracts further. If you’re banking on increased rights fees but your next contract negotiation is even a year away, and you’re not one of the major college conferences, pro leagues, major golf competitions, NASCAR, FIFA, or the Olympics, it’s time to ratchet down your expectations considerably.

Predictions for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selections are performed by a panel of 46 leading NFL media members including representatives of all 32 NFL teams, a representative of the Pro Football Writers of America, and 13 at-large writers.

The panel has selected a list of 15 finalists from the modern era, defined as playing all or part of their careers within the last 25 years. A player must have spent 5 years out of the league before they can be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. Players that last played in the 2011 season will be eligible for induction in 2017.

During Super Bowl Weekend, the panel will meet and narrow down the list of modern-era finalists down to five. Those five will be considered alongside one senior candidate, selected by a nine-member subpanel of the larger panel last August, and two contributors (not players or coaches), selected by another nine-member subpanel, for a total of eight. From this list, at least four and no more than eight people will be selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

My prediction for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017 is:

LaDainian Tomlinson
Kurt Warner
John Lynch
Joe Jacoby
Don Coryell
Kenny Easley
Jerry Jones
Paul Tagliabue

Hall of Fame Game: Chargers v. Cardinals

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 15

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006 and 2011. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although starting this year Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. No team starts the season completely tapped out at any measure; nine teams have five primetime appearances each, but only the Texans don’t have games in the main flex period, though they don’t have any early-flex games left either. A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 5 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 17 (January 3):

AFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (7-7)
SOUTH
48-6
510-4
8-6
NORTH
39-5
69-5
8-6
WEST
211-3
8-6
10-4 8-6
EAST
112-2
8-6
CLINCHED
NFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (6-8)
SOUTH
49-5
510-4
8-6
NORTH
39-5
68-6
8-6
WEST
29-4-1
8-6
CLINCHED 7-6-1
EAST
112-2
7-7
10-4
  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Texans-Titans, Packers-Lions, and though it’s an extreme long-shot, Andrew DeCaro will be happy to know there is a situation where Patriots-Dolphins gets picked. Both of the division title games have a very strong chance of happening, though, and Pats-Dolphins is even dependent on one of them happening, so realistically this is about as simple as last year without the NFL being stuck without a loser-out game… not that they’ll necessarily appreciate it.
  • Packers-Lions will be picked if: The Packers win OR (the Titans lose AND the Texans or Colts win). I saw the following tweet on my feed Monday:

    Certainly Packers-Lions is the game NBC would prefer to any alternative, but this overlooks two wrinkles: the possibility that the loser would still make the playoffs, and the fact the Lions play Monday night, which the NFL might be uncomfortable waiting for to announce the Week 17 SNF game, to say nothing of the rest of the schedule. Indeed, the former is pretty realistic at the moment (and cannot be guaranteed not to be the case if the Packers win), even if right now the strength-of-victory tiebreaker is needed to break the tie between the Packers and Bucs. Would the NFL take an NFC North title game that’s not loser-out (the exact scenario that, last year, prompted the league to exempt Week 17 from appearance limits this year) over an AFC South title game that is, especially since the winner of the former probably won’t receive a first-round bye (a Seahawks loss would make it much easier for the league to justify picking this game over Texans-Titans) and in fact the game may just determine home field for a rematch the following week? We’ll see. (That said, if the Texans clinch the AFC South – UPDATE: or the Colts can still steal the division – the league might not wait for Monday to move this game into Sunday night, on grounds that even if the Packers lose and Lions win to clinch the division, they could still be playing for seeding while the Packers will likely be fighting for their playoff lives, and the league wouldn’t have any better options.)

  • Texans-Titans will be picked if: The Titans win OR the Texans and Colts lose. During “Football Night in America” the announcers repeatedly played up the prospect of a Packers-Lions division title game. I didn’t watch the whole show but I saw nothing about Texans-Titans, which might be in even better shape with the two teams tied at the top of the division. It’s also unlikely, though not impossible, for the loser of this game to still make the playoffs. (UPDATE: Turns out I forgot about the Colts being a game back and the possibility of them stealing the division if they take a three-way tie into Week 17 and win alongside the Titans, even though I mentioned it last week. This is why I shouldn’t write these posts late at night.) Actually…
  • Patriots-Dolphins might be picked if: The Dolphins lose AND the Texans and Titans win AND the Ravens lose AND (the Broncos lose OR the Dolphins have already clinched the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Broncos) AND the Patriots win AND the Raiders lose. The Titans beat the Dolphins head-to-head, while if the Dolphins lose out while the Texans split to lose the division, the Texans would have the better conference record. But the Ravens and Broncos need to lose or else it might not be a win-and-in game for the Dolphins, and if the Patriots still haven’t secured the #1 seed the league might prefer this game be played the same time as the AFC West games. And even then, this scenario still wouldn’t guarantee that the Texans-Titans loser made the playoffs even with a Dolphins loss. (It’s also worth noting that if the Raiders have clinched the AFC West, then this game needs to go in the 4:25 time slot to guarantee both the Raiders and Chiefs are playing for something, in which case the NFL might prefer to give Texans-Titans a guaranteed national audience rather than let CBS bury it behind the ratings magnet of the Patriots or in the 1 PM ET time slot, even if Packers-Lions is also an option, unless they’re in the mood to cross-flex one of these games.)

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 14

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006 and 2011. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although starting this year Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. No team starts the season completely tapped out at any measure; nine teams have five primetime appearances each, but only the Texans don’t have games in the main flex period, though they don’t have any early-flex games left either. A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 5 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 17 (January 3):

AFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (6-7)
SOUTH
47-6
510-3
7-6
NORTH
38-5
68-5 5-7-1
7-6
WEST
210-3
8-5
10-3 7-6
EAST
111-2
7-6
8-5
NFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (5-7-1)
SOUTH
48-5
59-4
8-5
WEST
38-4-1
68-5
5-7-1
NORTH
29-4
7-5-1
2 teams at 7-6 7-6
EAST
111-2
7-6
9-4
  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Giants-Swamp, Texans-Titans, Panthers-Bucs, Jaguars-Colts, Packers-Lions, Patriots-Dolphins, Raiders-Broncos, Chiefs-Chargers.
  • Chances of Texans-Titans: 35 percent. With these two teams tied at the top of the division and the Colts a game back, there are only two main obstacles to this game being flexed to NBC: the severe lack of name value of the teams and the possibility of the loser still picking up a wild card spot, and the latter isn’t too big a concern right now. With Houston holding a perfect division record including one game over the Titans, while the Titans have only one division win, this game would at least be a candidate if the teams were either tied or if the Titans took a one-game lead into Week 17; that perfect division record also means that the Colts could be tied with the Texans in the latter scenario and still allow this to be a division title game. But the Colts can’t be tied for the division lead heading into the final week, and NBC might prefer virtually any other game.
  • Chances of Packers-Lions: 25 percent. The Packers have a game in hand over the Lions so they only need to make up one game to make this a division title game, but they have the twin problems of the potential of the loser still making the playoffs and the Vikings gumming up the waterworks. Even then, so long as the Packers beat the Vikings on Christmas Eve the Vikings would lose a tiebreaker if they managed to nab a share of the division lead, with the Packers winning the three-way tiebreaker if it came to that. What may be the biggest problem is that the Lions play on Monday night Week 16, meaning this game may have to be a division title game no matter what happens there – in other words, the Packers may have to make up a game this week and then beat the Vikings – but if that happens NBC would gobble this game up in a heartbeat.
  • Chances of Giants-Swamp: 15 percent. The Giants and Bucs have identical conference records with nothing but conference games remaining, so if they finished tied the Bucs would win the tiebreaker. So if the Giants and Bucs enter Week 17 tied with Washington a half-game behind both, then the loser of this game is out as they would fall behind the Bucs no matter what, while the winner should get in if they can’t be leapfrogged by an NFC North team.
  • Chances of Raiders-Broncos: 10 percent. The Raiders have a game in hand over the Broncos but have only a one-game lead in divisional games, so depending on what games the Raiders lose or Broncos win the Broncos might only need to make up one game. But this game would also need the Dolphins, or (less likely) teams in other divisions, to cooperate in order to eliminate the loser, and both AFC West games are dependent on Broncos-Chiefs as the Christmas night game.
  • Chances of Patriots-Dolphins: 6 percent. The Dolphins would lose the common games tiebreaker to either the Raiders or Broncos, so if they all entered the week tied this game would be closer to a win-and-in, lose-and-out game than that one, for reasons described here, assuming the AFC North or South isn’t a factor… and assuming the Patriots have nothing left to play for, because if they’re still fighting for seeding the league would probably prefer to have them playing at the same time (or earlier) as the Chiefs. The flip side is that the Dolphins can still win the division if they win out and the Patriots lose out, and the Patriots aren’t even guaranteed a playoff spot yet; I don’t know if that’s more or less likely as a scenario (and I’m not sure the Patriots can be guaranteed to be eliminated from the playoffs with a loss before the rest of the Week 17 games), but it might be more likely to put this game in primetime. If the chances I give this game seem high to you, think of it as 3 percent for each of these scenarios.
  • Chances of Jaguars-Colts: 4 percent. Similar to the first Pats-Dolphins scenario above but under slightly different conditions, namely the Colts and Titans being tied for the division lead by a game over the Texans. The Colts swept the Titans so they would get in with a win, but if the Texans win and the Colts lose then the Texans’ sweep of both teams would give them the division. But this game might be even less appealing than Texans-Titans, so it would be an absolute last resort.
  • Chances of Chiefs-Chargers: 4 percent. Also similar to Pats-Dolphins, this game is also dependent on a three-way tie but for the opposite reason: the Chiefs swept the Raiders and the Broncos can’t beat them on divisional record, so if the Chiefs collapsed to the point all three teams were tied for the division lead, the Chiefs would win the division with a win no matter what happened with the Raiders and Broncos. But between this and Jags-Colts, I don’t know which scenario is less likely or which game is less desirable.
  • Chances of Panthers-Bucs: 1 percent. Unlike the other games that only matter to one team, this one isn’t nearly as cut and dry, and in fact I’m not sure a scenario even exists where this game would be picked. The best-case scenario I can find for this being a win-and-in, lose-and-out game for the Bucs is if you took the scenario for the Giants game above and moved Washington a half-game ahead of the Giants and Bucs; then, if the Giants lose and the Bucs win the Bucs would get the 6 seed if no NFC North team intervenes, if the Giants and Bucs lose the Bucs could still make the playoffs unless an NFC North team intervenes, but if the Giants win and the Bucs lose then the Bucs are out. But even that requires the NFC North to cooperate in each direction, making it difficult if not impossible to think of a situation where this game would be a true candidate but Packers-Lions was not.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 13

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006 and 2011. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although starting this year Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. No team starts the season completely tapped out at any measure; nine teams have five primetime appearances each, but only the Texans don’t have games in the main flex period, though they don’t have any early-flex games left either. A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 5 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 15 (December 18):

  • Selected game: Tampa Bay @ Dallas.

Week 17 (January 3):

AFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (6-6)
SOUTH
46-6
59-3
2 teams at 6-6
NORTH
37-5
68-4
7-5
EAST
210-2
7-5
7-5 7-5
WEST
110-2
9-3
NFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (5-7)
SOUTH
47-5
58-4
7-5
NORTH
38-4
67-5
2 teams at 6-6
WEST
28-3-1
6-5-1
5-6-1 6-6
EAST
111-1
6-6
8-4 5-6-1
  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Saints-Falcons, Giants-Swamp, Texans-Titans, Panthers-Bucs, Jaguars-Colts, Packers-Lions, Patriots-Dolphins, Cowboys-Eagles, Raiders-Broncos, Chiefs-Chargers.
  • Preliminary analysis: Typically, since the advent of the all-division-matchups-Week-17 era, I come up with arbitrary percentage chances of each game and analyses of the situations that might reward each game in my Week 14 post, then lay out the exact Week 16 outcomes that would put a specific game into SNF in my Week 15 post. But because there’s no primetime flex scheduling in Week 16 this year, this would be a short post if I didn’t say anything here, so here’s a sneak preview of next week’s post. The NFC East is strong enough that teams might end up playing for seeding at best, although the Bucs’ resurgence is making the game in the nation’s capital potentially more interesting. But if that game doesn’t work out, the AFC South is the likeliest candidate to produce the SNF game, much to NBC’s chagrin. Raiders-Broncos and Packers-Lions could end up becoming division title games (or games with a wild-card spot on the line), but the home teams would need to make up two-game deficits, an intermediary team (the Chiefs or Vikings) would need to become irrelevant, and the loser, ideally, would need to be eliminated from wild-card contention (requiring an absolute collapse on the part of the Raiders and huge rallies by the Dolphins and/or Steelers and Ravens). See here for why the NFC South games, Jaguars-Colts, and Chiefs-Chargers are options, and why there’s a very slight chance Patriots-Dolphins or Cowboys-Eagles could be the pick even if the road teams have already clinched their respective divisions, depending on how tiebreakers work out for the home teams.

Last-Minute Remarks on SNF Week 15 Picks

Week 15 (December 18):

  • Tentative game: Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati
  • Prospects: 7-5 v. 4-7-1. 7-5 is good enough for a tie for the AFC North lead at the moment, the Steelers are a name team, and the Bengals won, but this would still be very questionable.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Broncos (CBS) and Eagles-Ravens (FOX).
  • Other possible games mentioned on last week’s Watch and their records: Lions (8-4)-Giants (8-4), Bucs (7-5)-Cowboys (11-1), Titans (6-6)-Chiefs (9-3), Colts (5-6)-Vikings (6-6), Raiders (10-2)-Chargers (5-7).
  • Impact of Monday Night Football: The Colts probably need to win to give Colts-Vikings a chance, but given the competition it might not make much of a difference.
  • Analysis: Shortly after last week’s post went up, I read this article that indicated that, in fact, neither Lions-Giants nor Bucs-Cowboys was protected – though in its original version it seemed to forget that Week 17 is not bound by appearance limits anymore, which coupled with how matter-of-factly it stated those non-protections, given the lack of any word of what the protections are to this point (it’s not even confirmed what Fox did protect this week, if anything), make me wonder whether the author actually knew what the protections were or made assumptions based on something else (my site maybe?). Clearly, though, if the author felt those appearance limits were the main obstacle to flexing either game in, as opposed to how many of those appearances would be strung together in a row, then if he was privy to any inside information then neither game can be ruled out, in which case they’re really the only two options; Titans-Chiefs is a skosh less lopsided than Bucs-Cowboys but is worse in both teams’ records and averages out to a worse pair of records than Lions-Giants. My inclination is that Lions-Giants has the edge, not only because it’s less lopsided, but because for some unfathomable reason the NFL thought it was a good idea to schedule a Jets home game for Saturday night and a Giants home game the following Sunday early afternoon, giving the Metlife Stadium grounds crew *maybe* 12-13 hours to turn around the field; moving Lions-Giants to Sunday night would not only give the grounds crew more time to turn around the field, but as pointed out in the comments here, would ease the logistical pressures on NBC as their crew for the Jets game could stay in place for the Giants game. (The league could move Lions-Giants to late afternoon, but unless it’s crossflexed to CBS’ doubleheader it would effectively be an admission that the league goofed up when putting together the schedule to begin with.) The flipside, besides the ratings gold the Cowboys always are, continues to be my concern about scheduling Giants home night games on consecutive December Sundays, especially since, as pointed out in the comments here and alluded to in the above article, many older Giants fans continue to stay away from night games on the perception that they would have to wander into a wretched hive of scum and villainy. (Also, since the article’s concern about appearance limits was that either NFC East game could be picked Week 17, it’s worth noting that while both the Cowboys and Giants are in primetime Week 16, only the Giants are on NBC and would have their streak of NBC appearances extended by a Week 17 move.)
  • Final prediction: Detroit Lions @ New York Giants.
  • Actual selection: Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Dallas Cowboys. And seeing a reference to that selection was what reminded me I needed to write this post. Oops. Good thing I’d already been thinking about it since reading that article and the comments on the last post. For the record, Lions-Giants is staying put at 1 PM on Fox.