Making sense of the Thursday Night Football deal

After over two years of speculation, the NFL has finally sold half of its Thursday Night Football slate… in a way no one could have anticipated.

As the NFL started ramping up the bidding process for the new package over the past month, some of the details that started coming out were head-scratching. The NFL expressed its preference to put the games on broadcast, not cable, which eventually grew to the point of basically insisting on it. The NFL also expressed its desire to simulcast the games on NFL Network.

Neither of these made any sense to me. The whole point of selling the games, I would have thought, was to get networks like NBCSN or FS1 to pony up the subscriber-fee-backed dough to take on programming that could boost those subscriber fees to the moon, to say nothing of ESPN protecting its own turf or Turner propping up TruTV or giving a boost to TNT. Broadcast networks have started catching up to cable with their retransmission consent fees, but the possibility of cord-cutting, or technologies like Aereo, could always be lurking in the background, and their owners continue to put their emphasis on cable wherever possible; the first twelve years of the college football playoff, after all, will still be on ESPN. Certainly the big four broadcast networks would fall over themselves to get the package, though it’s still the bank of crappy games NFLN has had for the past two seasons, but they wouldn’t pay nearly as much as cable networks would. And what did the NFL expect to gain by simulcasting games on NFL Network? Did they really think Time Warner Cable and Cablevision were so stupid they would treat NFLN as though it still had a full-season schedule despite the fact they could get 6-8 of its games anyway on a broadcast network? The NFL seemed to want it both ways.

I wonder if the key to the NFL’s thinking was the fact that this was a one-year deal (although the eventual deal also contains an option for a second year). I wonder if the NFL was floating a trial balloon to see how much money the Thursday package was worth, while also seeing what the reaction of cable companies might be to NFLN losing a bunch of games without actually having NFLN suffer too much – perhaps not wanting to lose people used to turning on NFLN on Thursday nights. The NFL might also want to see how much of TNF’s ratings, which are substantially behind those of the NFL’s other packages, are because of NFLN’s limited distribution or the crappy bank of games, while trying to build an audience for the games on the broadest distribution platform available and get more people used to watching the NFL on Thursday night. Perhaps they floated out feelers to Comcast, Fox, Turner, and ESPN and didn’t like the potential bids they got, so they decided on a different approach that could boost the value of the package and help them determine what balance of rights fees to boosting NFLN to strike. Depending on what the ratings are on CBS and NFL Network for each half of the package, as well as what the reaction of cable companies will be, the NFL may decide to sign a longer-term deal with a cable network, or keep more games on NFL Network again, or something else entirely.

But I can’t help but wonder if this marks a turning point in the bigger picture. The last few years have seen more and more events move from broadcast to cable and the accompanying explosion of the sports TV wars. Now the kingpin of American sports has seemingly moved in the opposite direction, and put a package on broadcast that might otherwise have seemed destined for cable. It may be a small step, but I hold out hope that when we look back, it marks the point the tide started to turn in broadcast’s favor – though the NBA could end up having a bigger impact on that later this year.

(I am surprised at CBS’ win, not because of their strong Thursday primetime lineup, but because of the same reason I didn’t see FS1 winning the package: it was just too awkward for CBS to take on a conference-agnostic package alongside having all the non-primetime AFC games. I thought NBC was the favorite, more because of synergy with their Kickoff and Thanksgiving night games than because of their weak Thursday primetime lineup, with ABC being second favorite by default.)

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