What does the NFL Network’s expanded schedule mean for the NFL’s efforts to sell some of it?

Roger Goodell’s announcement at his Super Bowl press conference that the NFL Network would get an expanded slate of primetime games isn’t really new news by itself. But when the NFL first announced that the NFLN would get this slate, it sounded like they would get 10-12 games, which allowed for speculation that the NFL was expanding NFLN’s slate as a short-term move to ease people into a full-season Thursday Night slate and goose NFLN distribution for one last time before the NFL sold half of that full-season slate to another entity.

So to hear that NFLN will have a 13-game slate, starting the second week of the season, taking only Week 16 off among weeks NBC doesn’t already have and that the NFL would be willing to schedule a Thursday night game on, effectively going to a full-season slate already… should that shock us into realizing that the plan the NFL seemed to be floating during the lockout is off the table?

When you combine it with NBC’s Thanksgiving night game, and NFLN seemingly abandoning Saturdays, which would mean that there are now, at most, 14 games to go around where before there were 16, it certainly should look like a distinct possibility. The NFL could very conceivably maintain this schedule indefinitely if they really wanted to. If you really wanted to engage in wishful thinking, you could say that NFLN is only serving as a placeholder because the NFL didn’t sell the Thursday night package this year, and they’ll have a package in place for next year… but there’s only so long you can maintain that notion. (And I don’t even want to dignify the notion of selling a Saturday night package.) The best chance for the NFL to eventually sell half of its Thursday night slate is if they administer an even bigger poison pill: an 18-game schedule, which the owners clearly still want.

At this late stage, it’s not as though losing that contract would be a disaster, at least not for the media companies. This year will see a number of high-stakes rights battles go down, including MLB, NASCAR, and the BCS, and I wonder if part of the reason the NFL is doing this is because several media companies have lost interest and intend on scaling back their bids in the near term. As much as Comcast, the company with probably the most interest, would love to use NFL programming to grow its NBC Sports Network, they could do the same thing with an MLB or NASCAR contract, possibly (I haven’t looked up the numbers) for cheaper, and attract a smaller but broader audience more days of the year and possibly get some big events on top of it. ESPN, which I had ranked third-most likely, was probably only really in it to keep Comcast from getting it.┬áThat leaves Turner and Fox; as much as Turner would love to get back into the NFL, they’re in a strong enough position as it is that they don’t really need it (unless they intended to put games on truTV), while Fox continues to be hamstrung by its inability to raise subscriber fees for FX.

The NFL would be leaving a lot of money on the table if they didn’t sell off those games, but they already extorted a lot more money out of their broadcast partners, and it’s apparent they’re more pissed that there are still some big-time holdouts for NFLN distribution even after the RedZone offer – although color me skeptical that throwing more third-tier primetime games on the pile is really going to bring Time Warner Cable around at this point if they weren’t brought around already. (This may be why Roger Goodell talks about putting every team in primetime… but the games will be shown on broadcast in the local markets, so those people won’t be motivated to call their cable provider, and showing every team means you’re going to be putting on some pretty crappy teams with apathetic fanbases, which may underline the cable companies’ point and, considering apparently every team will play a Thursday game following a Sunday game, might even further devalue the half of the package you sell because the scheduling ends up being so restrictive.)

On another note, did the NFL just kill Thursday as a viable college football night?

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