Breaking down the new Thursday Night Football deal

Earlier this month the NFL announced a two-year deal with CBS and NBC to split the Thursday Night Football package, pocketing a cool $900 million in the process. CBS will have some games in the early part of the season, with NBC having the later part and NFL Network having some exclusives sprinkled between both parts. The NFL also still wants to sell the TNF package to an over-the-top outlet.

That’s a huge chunk of change, and it’s easy to look at that price and go “what sports rights bubble?” Certainly it looks like CBS and NBC don’t agree with Rich Greenfield that the massive amounts ESPN has paid for sports rights are rooted in assumptions that no longer hold and will end up undermining it, at least within the next two years. As I explain in the book, cord-cutting should actually make sports rights even more valuable, and in fact the forces driving it have arguably been underlying the sports rights boom all along, as one of the few pieces of content guaranteed to keep people watching linear television and keep them signed up for cable. If you look at this deal, you’re thinking it’s a good sign for the Big Ten’s ability to collect a hefty chunk of change from ESPN and Fox (not coincidentally two of the three outfits that didn’t get in on this deal).

That said, I do have to wonder if this is actually that great a deal for CBS and NBC. Analysts at Barclays looked at ad sales vs. rights fees and concluded that CBS lost money on Thursday Night Football last year, though they expect CBS to come out slightly ahead this year with the lower game load; throwing in production costs, Morgan Stanley thinks CBS lost $200 million on the deal and both networks could lose over $100 million a year under the new deal. Of course, ad sales aren’t the only benefit CBS gets from TNF; more NFL games increases the retransmission-consent value of CBS stations, high-rated NFL games increase the lead-in for local news, and CBS gets to use TNF as a platform to promote its other shows. On top of that, under normal circumstances networks do, in fact, make money off ads alone from NFL games. But CBS had to share its Thursday night package with NFL Network, meaning it likely had to share ad revenue with NFLN as well, and might have to share it with whatever OTT partner the NFL gets on board. That also means that, in theory, any retrans benefit from TNF games would be limited if cable operators could still pick them up off NFL Network, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the NFL would require cable operators to pick up CBS to get TNF games on NFL Network.

But selling games to an OTT partner could cripple the amount of money all three networks can get off TNF games from cable operators, even the NFLN-“exclusive” games their deals with cable operators require them to keep. The best-case scenario is that games are sold to Verizon or AT&T under similar terms as Verizon’s existing smartphone deal, where you have to sign up to their existing services to watch the games, meaning subscribers to rival carriers would have to watch on one of the linear networks. The next-best case is if the games are sold to a subscription service, meaning if you aren’t signed up for that service already there’s value in finding a service that carries one of the linear networks or getting an antenna, but by all accounts that’s unlikely. Where there could be a real problem is if the games are sold to an outfit like Yahoo under similar terms as their London game last year, where the stream is free to everyone. Besides making it more likely that Yahoo would want a cut of ad revenue, that means TNF games provide little to no incentive for cable operators to pay more for CBS, NBC, or NFL Network than they otherwise would, with the main incentive to want any of the networks being to avoid seeing Tweets that are as much as a minute ahead of the online stream. It also means some of the suggestions I’ve seen, where the cockamamie scheme where some games air on CBS, some NBC, and some NFL Network leads people to just watch all the games on NFLN, might instead lead people to watch it on the OTT outlet, limiting the amount that any of the networks benefit from the games.

If I’m CBS I’m not sure I agree to this deal without at least securing rights to the games for CBS All Access (and with NBC getting the second half of the season I’d want to find out how much to pay them to get the rights to the season-opening kickoff game, reducing the perception that the balance of Thursday games is tilted towards NBC with that and the Thanksgiving game); if I’m NBC I think long and hard about becoming a party to a scheme that could accelerate the growth of streaming video, potentially at the expense of my parent Comcast’s cable business. I certainly don’t think five games apiece, plus producing four more for NFL Network, with all the games airing on NFLN and an OTT outlet, is worth anything near what CBS and NBC are paying for them.

The NFL is talking about still having an opportunity to “grow the profile” of the Thursday night package, but if the NFL has to come up with this confusing scheme to split the games between two different broadcast networks and sell them to an over-the-top outlet, I think they’re bumping up against the limit of how much value the Thursday night games actually have, and I think this probably puts the nail in the coffin for the notion that the NFL will eventually sell part of the Thursday night package to a cable network like FS1 or NBCSN. The NFL is running up against the inherent limits of the Thursday night timeslot, the questionable quality of the games played on short rest and the need to give every team exactly one game played on short rest, meaning you inevitably have to put the Titans and Jaguars on at some point and you’re limited in how much you can showcase the marquee teams. NBC is salivating over the late-season games they get to show, but the lack of flexible scheduling means they could easily get shafted with dog games involving dog teams; at least early in the season you can put on name teams and people will watch before they know just how good or bad they actually are. (Of course, expect NBC to get the Cowboys the week after Thanksgiving every year, which is guaranteed to pop a rating no matter how much they or their opponents suck.)

Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Thursday Night Football doesn’t last beyond the end of the current long-term deals in 2022. If selling it to a cable sports network is a dead letter – and Fox, NBC, and ESPN are all likely going to be badly hurting from their hefty investments in their cable sports networks by then – and there isn’t the oversupply of linear TV space there is now, then given the constraints on the product TNF really only makes sense as long as the NFL still has its own cable network, and while you’d think if any outfit could justify its own network, even in a future age of linear television contraction and a la carte, it would be the NFL, the limited live game inventory it would have would make it a tough proposition (something that’s not necessarily the case with college conferences like the Big Ten or SEC), especially given the pros and cons of continuing to sell some of it to another outlet. Depending on how viable an option ESPN is looking, I could see the NFL trying to monetize Monday Night Football in much the way they’ve been doing with Thursday nights, where they can offer more consistent, better matchups and better quality of play than what they can offer the networks and over-the-top outlets that have been bidding on TNF. It’s doubtful they can get the kind of money ESPN pays them for MNF, but then it’s doubtful ESPN itself will be able to pay that much by then.

The realities of trying to turn Thursday Night Football into an institution on par with MNF and SNF are coming home to roost, and while CBS, NBC, and an over-the-top outlet to be named later may be allowing the NFL to keep deluding itself otherwise for now, it may be about to bite all of them in the ass.

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