Could ESPN Kill Thursday Night Football?

In 1987, ESPN achieved something of a holy grail for the cable industry, picking up a half-season package of Sunday night NFL games, paid for with the imposition of a surcharge on the fees cable operators paid them. In 1998, ESPN picked up the full season of Sunday night games, paid for by the negotiation of clauses with distributors ramping up the fees paid to ESPN every year. This was the start of the process that resulted in ESPN charging every cable subscriber over $7 a month, far more than any other national cable network, and a key component in ESPN’s ability to acquire top-of-the-line sports rights such as the biggest college football bowl games.

In 2005, Disney was outmaneuvered in its efforts to renew both ESPN’s Sunday night package and ABC’s Monday night package, as the NFL struck a deal with NBC to move the league’s marquee primetime package to Sunday night in order to institute flexible scheduling that would ensure good, competitive games late into the season. Disney was left paying as much as it had for both of its previous packages for a single package for airing on ESPN. Ever since, ESPN has paid nearly twice as much as the broadcast networks for a package not much better, if at all, than the marginally-attractive matchups it had been getting on Sunday night. ESPN executives have chafed at this, claiming that for the amount it pays it should be getting matchups at least on par with the broadcast networks; to be sure, part of the fee pays for ESPN’s ability to use highlights across its myriad of programs, but that’s only a fraction of it, maybe no more than a fifth. But when the time came to renew the deal, after nearly a decade of knowing what Monday Night Football had become with the move to cable, ESPN ponied up nearly two billion dollars a year, once again close to double what each of the broadcast networks were paying. ESPN’s package of NFL games may be weak, but they’re a big part of what makes ESPN so valuable to cable operators, what makes it such a must-have for sports fans, and without it ESPN not only becomes a lot less valuable, but that same package of games becomes a tool an FS1 or NBCSN can use to instantly establish near-parity with ESPN.

At the same time it was shaking up its existing primetime packages in 2005, the NFL carved out a package of late-season Thursday night games to air on its own network, hoping to turn NFL Network into a cash cow that could collect hefty subscriber fees directly for the league. The package grew until it eventually took up the whole season, both to coerce holdouts to carry NFL Network and to establish the worth of a package to sell to other parties. Initially, the league was thought to be selling part of the Thursday night package to another cable outlet like FS1, NBCSN, or TNT, any of which would be salivating over the prospect of using NFL games to increase their own worth to cable operators, but instead it ultimately sold the right to simulcast and produce half a season of games to broadcast networks while also selling the right to stream games to Twitter and later Amazon. Sure, Thursday night games meant teams would be playing on a short week, increasing the risk of injury and potentially resulting in sloppy games, and the league’s policy of making each team play on a short week exactly once during the season limited the package’s ability to show marquee matchups. But Thursday night was a place to collect another pound of flesh from TV partners and air the games that made NFL Network worth paying for for cable operators, as well as a place to experiment with new formats and partners. It wasn’t like there were any other places for them to do this. Sundays and Mondays were taken.

Things have changed quite rapidly over the past few years. Cord-cutting has taken off like a rocket as people increasingly turn to on-demand streaming services for their entertainment, undercutting the primacy of linear television. In the short term, this only increases the value of live sports as one of the few types of programming people will willingly watch live, without skipping commercials, and are willing to pay for cable packages to watch, but it also changes the very nature of linear television, as it’s becoming increasingly apparent that anything your network airs that isn’t live events is just filler between live events (as much as ESPN and Fox sometimes don’t seem to recognize this). In that context, highlight rights are considerably less valuable than they used to be.

ESPN and the NFL are also looking at a future where the cable bundle collapses and the NFL can’t simply sell whatever it offers for a billion dollars to whatever cable network pays for it, which is no doubt part of the reason why it sold TNF to broadcast networks and streaming services rather than cable networks. In this context, ESPN’s future is no longer in collecting as much money as it can off the back of every cable subscriber, but in converting itself into a service offering its wares direct to the consumer, and it has less to worry about from FS1 and NBCSN – who have benefitted ESPN more by keeping the cable bundle propped up than hurt it in any way, and which now become more untenable propositions both in general and for the league specifically – than it does from Amazon and its ability to synergize sports rights with its Prime service. A package of mediocre NFL games may be valuable to cable operators that can pass on the cost to all their subscribers and that NFL fans can watch at anytime after paying for the entire cable bundle, but a subscription service offered directly to consumers can best attract subscribers by covering certain sports comprehensively, or else a broad array of important sports events that can combine to make it a must-have service for sports fans, and that single mediocre NFL game each week isn’t going to fit the bill and certainly isn’t going to be worth two billion dollars.

In that context, it’s easy to see why, as James Andrew Miller, the man who literally wrote the book on ESPN, suggested in a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter, ESPN might be thinking about going without NFL rights when they next come up for renewal, for the first time since 1987. ESPN has been removing clauses conditioning its high subscription fees on its continued carriage of NFL games from its contracts with cable operators, which makes sense when you consider the gap in fees between ESPN and NFL Network (and the fact that TNT charges more than NFLN without football or really much of anything other than NBA basketball and select NCAA Tournament games), and freeing up two billion dollars a year of spending money allows them to pay for events that offer a larger tonnage of content and may be more likely to entice more people to sign up for an ESPN subscription service.

Meanwhile, faced with a second year of headlines of declining NFL ratings, networks have begun complaining to the NFL about oversaturation of games and games being taken out of the Sunday afternoon packages. They want to move all London games back to 1 PM ET and end the “breakfast football” games that kick off at 9:30 AM ET. And they want the league to cut the Thursday night package back to eight games. That latter point would be difficult for the league to acquiesce to; all eight games would need to be exclusive to NFL Network to meet the network’s own contractural agreements with TV partners, preventing them from selling the games to another partner or a streaming service and once again forcing them to produce the games themselves, and potentially irking cable operators seeing NFLN’s tonnage being reduced to what it used to be when it was having trouble finding partners. And there’s nowhere else for it to go; again, Sundays and Mondays are all tied up. Or are they?

If ESPN decides NFL games are no longer vital to their business, if they decide to go without the NFL in the next TV contract, because of market forces that mean the NFL can’t prop up the cable bundle or any particular cable network anymore, that opens up a package of games that the NFL likely can’t sell to ESPN or any outlet looking to imitate it, but can use for whatever other purpose the league wants. They can put half the games on NFL Network, at least as long as it remains a tenable proposition within the cable bundle, and sell the remaining half to broadcast networks as they do with TNF now, or to a streaming service like Amazon, potentially selling the full season once the cable bundle completely collapses. Without ESPN preventing the NFL from doing whatever they want with MNF, the league could turn Mondays into the experimental night Thursdays are now, potentially doing away with Thursday games entirely except for opening night, Thanksgiving, and the week after Thanksgiving when both teams can be taken from the Thanksgiving games and play on a full week’s rest, curbing concerns about the league wearing players into the ground to collect a pound of flesh it’s becoming increasingly difficult to collect.

The competitive concerns motivating ESPN to keep paying up for MNF haven’t completely eased; ESPN wouldn’t want to walk away from the NFL only to pave the path for Amazon to become a competitor for sports rights. But I continue to believe that no entity that doesn’t at least control a linear television platform can truly be a player for major sports rights, and while Amazon has a lot more going for it than most Internet outlets, it’s not immune to those fundamental forces. At the very least, if ESPN continues to control a linear outlet it has a major asset to offer to sports entities, and if Amazon were to find its way onto one, and spend as prodigiously on sports rights as media companies have over the past decade, it would risk losing some of the advantages Prime has over cable networks if not recreate the worst excesses of the cable bundle. ESPN can handle creating a new competitor in Amazon while freeing up funds to maintain its supremacy in other ways, the NFL gets to continue raking in money from whatever revenue streams are available even if they aren’t as big, and players and fans could potentially find themselves in a world without Thursday Night Football and all the excesses and problems it represents and perpetuates. Everyone wins.

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