What Would a Conference-Free NFL Television Schedule Look Like?

Last month, Variety reported that the NFL was looking into the possibility of decoupling its Sunday afternoon television contracts from each conference in its next television contract beyond 2022 (no link because Variety’s site is too ad-laden and required me to reload something like three times before I could actually read the article; here’s a brief summary). I could swear I at least saw speculation to that effect during or even before last season, because I’m pretty sure I had the idea for this post back then, but I couldn’t find anything and nothing I saw passing on the Variety report tied it to anything earlier, and in any case it might have just been the sort of baseless speculation my commenters like to get into. If the Variety report is the first time this has come to light, it’s worth noting that the specific phrasing used in the report was that Fox and CBS “could get to air packages that include games from both the NFC and AFC, as opposed to the current system, which keeps the NFC on Fox and the AFC on CBS”, so it’s not even clear that it would mean more than an expansion of the current cross-flex system as opposed to the full decoupling it’s easy to interpret it as (assuming anything like this comes to fruition at all, which it might not).

If the NFL does completely sever Fox and CBS’ respective slates of games from conference affiliation, it would do away with what might seem like an archaic relic of the days before the AFL-NFL merger, but it would also pose a considerable logistical challenge. The NFL is unique among major professional sports leagues in the United States in that television production and distribution for all 256 games are handled by national networks; any game not selected to air in primetime is produced by Fox or CBS for regional distribution in one of their Sunday afternoon timeslots. If which network gets which game isn’t determined by which conference the road team is from, what does determine it?

There are a few different approaches the NFL could take if it adopts this idea, and a few different places they could look to for guidance. Something like what the Big Ten has with Fox and ESPN, where Fox gets its pick of weeks it wants to pick ahead of ESPN and ABC that it picks out all at once, probably wouldn’t fly in the NFL, certainly not if the league were to maintain the current Super Bowl rotation. CBS isn’t getting left with the dregs of the schedule left over after Fox and NBC take all the good games, with the weakest feature games in all of its doubleheader weeks. What’s more likely is that Fox and CBS agree to pay closer to equal rights fees for relatively even-handed access to the best non-primetime games.

Below is the result of my attempt to figure out what this might look like in practice based on the recently-released 2019 schedule, assuming the NFL keeps its current partners with their current packages and their current schedule structure beyond this change. I followed the following principles, which are just one idea for how it might work and at best is an oversimplification:

  • For simplicity, I took all the games slated for time slots outside Sunday afternoon – the primetime, London, and Thanksgiving games – as given, and assumed all Sunday afternoon games would stay in the week they’re in in the actual schedule. In reality, the exact schedule would be the result of a push and pull between Fox, CBS, NBC, and whatever other partners the NFL has.
  • Each network would have a choice of weeks 1-16 that it wants to get first pick of games to place in the featured slot of the doubleheader, leaving the other network with the singleheader. CBS is getting the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game this year, so Fox gets the first pick of Sunday afternoons. The choice of weeks goes in “snake” order, so Fox’s pick is followed by two CBS picks, then two Fox picks, and so on, while the choice of games within a week alternates between networks, so after Fox chooses its main national game CBS chooses its main singleheader game, then Fox chooses its main early game, then CBS picks again, and so on (this has the result that West Coast games cannot be the second or third pick). This would result in the two networks either having an equal number of games, or the doubleheader network having one more game, which is usually, but not always, the case in reality; I’m holding to that for this hypothetical schedule.
  • At least to start, no network may air more than four home games and eight games overall from a single team. Conversely, each network must air at least two home games and four games overall from a single team; in other words, if a team is maxed out on primetime appearances, at least one or two of those games must come from each network. Finally, no network may air more than half of a team’s games against its division rivals. Thursday Night Football and NFL Network games do not count towards Fox’s total for this purpose, but Thanksgiving games do count for both networks. This means that in most weeks, at least some games will be “forced” onto one network or the other, resulting in picks being forfeited from the end of the order.

Even given the caveats noted above, this schedule is not quite what I would prefer – I was partway through the process when I started paying more attention to preserving doubleheaders for two-team markets (ideally, home games in such markets would always air on the doubleheader network unless both teams in the market are playing at home on the same day at the same time, or in the case of Los Angeles, if the league and networks really, really want LA to get the feature game), and might have picked different doubleheader weeks for different networks had I been thinking that far ahead at the start. (Certainly the schedule itself is likely to be different as a result of these considerations alone.)

Generally, games are listed in the order that they were picked, except for games forced to one network or the other, which are listed at the point where they were forced. This mostly just means that the game each network features in each timeslot is listed first, since I removed any indication of which games were forced and had to do a considerable bit of shuffling of already-picked games to get everything to fit.

Week 1
CBS 1:00:
ATL @ MIN
BUF @ NYJ
BAL @ MIA
KC @ JAX

Fox 1:00:
WAS @ PHI
LAR @ CAR
TEN @ CLE
SF @ TB
4:05: DET @ ARI
4:05: CIN @ SEA

CBS 4:25:
NYG @ DAL
IND @ LAC

Week 2
Fox 1:00:
DAL @ WAS
BUF @ NYG
ARI @ BAL
IND @ TEN
JAX @ HOU

CBS 1:00:
MIN @ GB
SEA @ PIT (to 4:05?)
NE @ MIA
LAC @ DET
SF @ CIN
4:05: CHI @ DEN

Fox 4:25:
NO @ LAR
KC @ OAK

Week 3
CBS 1:00:
BAL @ KC
DET @ PHI
DEN @ GB
OAK @ MIN
NYG @ TB

Fox 1:00:
NYJ @ NE
MIA @ DAL
ATL @ IND
CIN @ BUF
4:05: PIT @ SF
4:05: HOU @ LAC

CBS 4:25:
NO @ SEA
CAR @ ARI

Week 4
Fox 1:00:
CLE @ BAL
NE @ BUF
LAC @ MIA
KC @ DET

CBS 1:00:
CAR @ HOU
WAS @ NYG
OAK @ IND
TEN @ ATL
4:05: TB @ LAR
4:05: JAX @ DEN

Fox 4:25:
MIN @ CHI
SEA @ ARI

Week 5
Fox 1:00:
NE @ WAS
MIN @ NYG
JAX @ CAR
BUF @ TEN

CBS 1:00:
BAL @ PIT
NYJ @ PHI
CHI v. OAK (London)
TB @ NO
ATL @ HOU
4:05: ARI @ CIN

Fox 4:25:
GB @ DAL
DEN @ LAC

Week 6
CBS 1:00:
SEA @ CLE
CIN @ BAL
NO @ JAX

Fox 1:00:
PHI @ MIN
HOU @ KC
WAS @ MIA
4:05: ATL @ ARI
4:05: TEN @ DEN

CBS 4:25:
DAL @ NYJ
SF @ LAR

Week 7
CBS 1:00:
HOU @ IND
SF @ WAS
MIN @ DET
MIA @ BUF

Fox 1:00:
LAR @ ATL
ARI @ NYG
JAX @ CIN
OAK @ GB
4:05: BAL @ SEA

CBS 4:25:
NO @ CHI
LAC @ TEN

Week 8
Fox 1:00:
CIN v. LAR (London)
SEA @ ATL
NYJ @ JAX
DEN @ IND
OAK @ HOU

CBS 1:00:
LAC @ CHI
PHI @ BUF
NYG @ DET
TB @ TEN
ARI @ NO
4:05: CAR @ SF

Fox 4:25:
CLE @ NE

Week 9
CBS 1:00:
MIN @ KC
TEN @ CAR
NYJ @ MIA

Fox 1:00:
CHI @ PHI
IND @ PIT
WAS @ BUF
4:05: DET @ OAK
4:05: CLE @ DEN

CBS 4:25:
GB @ LAC
TB @ SEA

Week 10
Fox 1:00:
NYG @ NYJ
BAL @ CIN
MIA @ IND
KC @ TEN

CBS 1:00:
ATL @ NO
CAR @ GB
DET @ CHI
BUF @ CLE
4:05: ARI @ TB

Fox 4:25:
LAR @ PIT

Week 11
Fox 1:00:
DAL @ DET
NO @ TB
BUF @ MIA
HOU @ BAL

CBS 1:00:
ATL @ CAR
DEN @ MIN
NYJ @ WAS
JAX @ IND
4:05: ARI @ SF

Fox 4:25:
NE @ PHI
CIN @ OAK

Week 12
CBS 1:00:
PIT @ CIN
DEN @ BUF
MIA @ CLE
OAK @ NYJ
JAX @ TEN

Fox 1:00:
CAR @ NO
NYG @ CHI
DET @ WAS
TB @ ATL
4:05: GB @ SF

CBS 4:25:
DAL @ NE

Week 13
Fox 1:00:
PHI @ MIA
NYJ @ CIN
OAK @ KC
TB @ JAX

CBS 1:00:
GB @ NYG
WAS @ CAR
SF @ BAL
TEN @ IND
4:05: LAR @ ARI

Fox 4:25:
CLE @ PIT
LAC @ DEN

Week 14
CBS 1:00:
CAR @ ATL
DEN @ HOU
IND @ TB
BAL @ BUF*
LAC @ JAX

Fox 1:00:
WAS @ GB
DET @ MIN
CIN @ CLE
MIA @ NYJ
SF @ NO
4:05: PIT @ ARI

CBS 4:25:
KC @ NE
TEN @ OAK

Week 15
CBS 1:00:
PHI @ WAS
NE @ CIN
HOU @ TEN
MIA @ NYG

Fox 1:00:
CHI @ GB
DEN @ KC
SEA @ CAR
TB @ DET
BUF @ PIT
4:05: ATL @ SF
4:05: CLE @ ARI

CBS 4:25:
LAR @ DAL
JAX @ OAK

Week 16
CBS TBD (2 of below):
*DET @ DEN
*OAK @ LAC
*BUF @ NE
*LAR @ SF
*HOU @ TB

Fox 1:00:
NYG @ WAS
NO @ TEN
JAX @ ATL
CAR @ IND

CBS 1:00:
PIT @ NYJ
BAL @ CLE
CIN @ MIA

Fox 4:25:
DAL @ PHI
ARI @ SEA

1 thought on “What Would a Conference-Free NFL Television Schedule Look Like?

  1. I could definitely see the NFL finally going away from current network/conference format. Heck, the 1st season of the merger was in 1970. I think these TV contracts can be re-worked and go to a conference free television schedule. And I think the 2 current partners (CBS and FOX) could have a draft for their games, for each week. A simple FOX picks 1st, CBS picks 2nd, FOX picks 3rd, CBS picks 4th and so on and flip it for each of the first 16 weeks. Then on Week 17 perhaps go back to the current network/conference format.

    Time will tell!

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