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

As the NFL playoffs continue this weekend, the league hopes to complete a new CBA and new television contracts by the end of the year, and there could be big changes on the horizon. As part of the CBA, the league wants to introduce a 17th game to the schedule, potentially accompanied by a second bye week, in hopes of carving out an additional package to sell to media or streaming companies. As it is there should be plenty of interest in the existing packages, with Disney hoping to get ABC back into the Super Bowl rotation, as well as the prospect of ending the conference-specific tie-ins of the Sunday afternoon packages.

In my view, the former is more likely than the latter. I’m not sure I’ve seen any actually solid reporting that the conference tie-ins would completely end, and even if they did it would depend on Fox’s willingness to give CBS (or whoever wins the other Sunday afternoon package) equal rights to the top Sunday afternoon games in exchange for a lower rights fee. If Fox isn’t up for that, CBS isn’t going to accept taking the dregs of the schedule left over after the other networks take their picks, as I said before the season when I looked at what a fully unconferenced schedule might look like, and would rather simply keep its AFC tie-in that ensures fans of teams in markets like Boston, Houston, and New York are tuning in to CBS in a majority of weeks, with expanded crossflexing allowing them to air more NFC games, perhaps with more flexibility in the balance of crossflexes. (The Titans may have benefitted from the Chiefs winning in the early slot Week 17 giving the Texans nothing to play for, a set of games that may have been scheduled the way they were in part because the NFL owed Fox a crossflexed CBS game and so didn’t want to overcomplicate things by giving CBS another Fox game to anchor their early slot, even if the Patriots could still have played early, or punish both networks by giving Fox an actually meaningful AFC game that would have diluted the audience for the NFC East race Fox wanted to focus on. While many of my commenters, which I even agree with, would solve this problem by playing all games in each conference at the same time Week 17 with each broadcast network getting two games from each, there’s no evidence that’s actually under consideration.)

If the league does dissolve the conference tie-ins on the Sunday afternoon packages, it will need to reinvent its playoff schedule – and this is an area where ABC entering the Super Bowl rotation in addition to the existing partners, as opposed to replacing one of them, could help the league (or hinder it, depending on your point of view), and something I suspect the league’s move this year to put the Sunday divisional games at the same start times as the conference championship games may be in preparation for. The NFL playoff schedule has historically been highly tied to the networks’ conference tie-ins, and while having NBC trade in the weakest wild-card game for a divisional-round game in the last contract has gone some distance to allow the league some flexibility in scheduling playoff games, nonetheless the need for CBS to air only AFC games and Fox only NFC games is an overriding consideration on the playoff schedule. NBC and ABC effectively need to air wild-card games in opposite conferences, and the conference NBC’s divisional game comes from is set before the season, alternating between the two conferences so CBS and Fox know whether they’re airing one or two divisional games. Finally, the conference championships – annually the most-watched programming of the year outside the Super Bowl – always air on the networks of each conference’s respective Sunday afternoon package, alternating between the 3 PM ET and 6:30 PM ET timeslots. Dissolving the conference tie-ins means eliminating the underlying reason for this structure, and NBC and ABC would love to get conference championship games in years they don’t have the Super Bowl.

What structure might replace it? Here’s how I, at least, would structure things to keep all of the league’s partners happy:

  • The conference championship games go to two networks that are not airing the Super Bowl. The network airing neither a conference championship nor the Super Bowl gets two divisional-round games, one from each conference, to compensate, including the late Sunday divisional game with first pick of the available games, with the conference championship networks getting the other two. Among other things, this allows a network to know that they will have the late Sunday divisional game ahead of time and schedule lead-out programming accordingly (something Fox wasn’t able to do this year). (If the Super Bowl rotation remains at three networks, the Super Bowl network gets two divisional games but the network airing the early conference championship game gets the late Sunday spot and first pick of available games.)
  • The network airing the early conference championship game gets the Sunday 4:30 ET wild-card game and first pick of games on the weekend. Thus, all four networks get an NFL playoff game as a lead-in to primetime programming. To compensate the early conference championship network for not actually having their Sunday late game in primetime, that network also gets second choice of divisional games and timeslots; if the top two picks go to the same conference, the two-divisionals network gets the worse of the two games from the remaining conference. (This does not apply if the Super Bowl rotation remains at three networks; in that case NBC may keep the Sunday late wild-card game on lockdown as a lead-in to the Golden Globes, unless they end up shut out. I don’t know how the league would handle it if one network gets completely shut out of the NFL.)
  • To compensate the Super Bowl network for only airing one playoff game before the Super Bowl, that network gets second choice of games and time slots on Wild Card weekend with the opportunity to leapfrog the early conference championship network for the best game (but only on Saturday night), depending on stadium availability and time zones, as well as the league’s preference that each conference get a game wrapping up at least one round of the playoffs each year, and that each non-Super Bowl network air at least one game from each conference. In both cases I would expect the second-choice time slot to be on Saturday nights (except, potentially, for NBC, to avoid pissing off Lorne Michaels) once out-of-home data is fully baked into Nielsen numbers, but for divisional weekend especially the Sunday early slot may remain strong.
  • If there is no clear distinction between the two remaining networks based on the above criteria (or maintaining a balance of games from each conference for the late conference championship network), the two-divisionals network gets the remaining choice of wild-card games, as they would likely still be doing worse in gross playoff ratings points compared to the conference championship networks. On the other hand, the late conference championship network hasn’t really gotten to “choose” anything, so they may get to pick ahead of the two-divisionals network under certain circumstances, especially if they’re stuck with the AFC championship game.
  • In the event the league expands the playoffs to 14 teams, the additional wild-card games go to ESPN and whoever picks up the remaining, “new” package. If the league wishes to stick entirely to broadcast television, one game goes to ABC (assuming ABC and ESPN pick up separate regular-season packages) with the other going to the Super Bowl network except in years that’s ABC. In those cases, over the course of an eight-year contract the extra game would go to CBS one year and Fox the other, in recognition of their having to produce many more games in the regular season and having more ability to bring in a second broadcast team seamlessly.
  • Over the course of an eight-year contract, each network gets each conference championship game in each timeslot once. As a result, the conference championships mostly stick with their current pattern of alteration, but “skip” a year at one point so that each network gets a conference championship in the same timeslot they did four years ago, but from the opposite conference. Alternately, each network’s timeslot varies from the first rotation to the second, though my inclination is that timeslot is more important. In total, the league will try to give each network ten playoff games from each conference over the life of the contract, though some imbalances may be inevitable.
  • Optional: Exclusive rights to the NFL Draft go to the network furthest from the Super Bowl, so the network that just completed their second season without it.

Here’s one idea for how the rotation might look. I’m assuming once the Super Bowl rotation goes to four networks NBC would want all their Super Bowl years to fall in Winter Olympic years, as in 2018 and 2022 (if the changes to the schedule result in the Super Bowl overlapping with the Winter Olympics on a regular basis, at least NBC is stopping any other network from stealing their Olympic thunder). With Fox reportedly selling national Super Bowl ad space to Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg the day before the Iowa caucuses, I suspect the league would be accused of trying to tip the political scales if they gave Fox the Super Bowl in presidential election years on a regular basis, so I gave Fox the Super Bowl in the year after NBC, followed by CBS and finally ABC. For this first rotation, each network gets conference championship games in alternating years. “2D” refers to the two-divisional network, “SB” to the Super Bowl network, and the conference championship networks are referred to with the conference each network is slated to air followed by an “early” or “late” designation.

  • 2023: 2D ABC, AFC early CBS, NFC late NBC, SB Fox
  • 2024: 2D NBC, NFC early Fox, AFC late ABC, SB CBS
  • 2025: 2D Fox, AFC early NBC, NFC late CBS, SB ABC
  • 2026: 2D CBS, NFC early ABC, AFC late Fox, SB NBC
  • 2027: 2D ABC, NFC early CBS, AFC late NBC, SB Fox
  • 2028: 2D NBC, AFC early Fox, NFC late ABC, SB CBS
  • 2029: 2D Fox, NFC early NBC, AFC late CBS, SB ABC
  • 2030: 2D CBS, AFC early ABC, NFC late Fox, SB NBC

To help you understand how this works, here’s what the 2023 playoff schedule might look like under this system:

  • Wild card: Saturday 4:30 PM ET NBC (or ABC), Saturday 8 PM ET Fox or ABC, Sunday 1 PM ET ABC or Fox (or NBC), Sunday 4:30 PM ET CBS
  • Divisional: Saturday 4:30 PM ET ABC, Saturday 8 PM ET CBS or NBC, Sunday 3 PM ET NBC or CBS, Sunday 6:30 PM ET ABC
  • Conference championships: AFC 3 PM ET CBS, NFC 6:30 PM ET NBC
  • Super Bowl: 6:30 PM ET, Fox
  • Optional: 2023 Draft on ABC and/or ESPN

Here’s an alternative where each network’s two-divisional year comes the year after the Super Bowl and “works their way up” to the Super Bowl the next time, with CBS and ABC switched.

  • 2023: 2D NBC, AFC early CBS, NFC late ABC, SB Fox
  • 2024: 2D Fox, NFC early NBC, AFC late CBS, SB ABC
  • 2025: 2D ABC, AFC early Fox, NFC late NBC, SB CBS
  • 2026: 2D CBS, NFC early ABC, AFC late Fox, SB NBC
  • 2027: 2D NBC, NFC early CBS, AFC late ABC, SB Fox
  • 2028: 2D Fox, AFC early NBC, NFC late CBS, SB ABC
  • 2029: 2D ABC, NFC early Fox, AFC late NBC, SB CBS
  • 2030: 2D CBS, AFC early ABC, NFC late Fox, SB NBC

One caveat: when it was first reported that NBC would give up a wild-card game for a divisional game in the current contract, it wasn’t entirely clear what would happen to the other three divisional games, and I kind of expected NBC to take two divisional games as a way of approaching as close to parity with CBS and Fox as possible without having a conference championship. Not only did that not happen, NBC doesn’t seem to have consistently if at all picked divisional games ahead of CBS or Fox, and the somewhat random timeslots and fixed conference alignments of NBC’s divisional games have made them seem something of an afterthought. So there’s no guarantee that the league is thinking in any way close to what I lay out here, and at the very least NBC may end up never getting multiple games in any round given how few games they produce and how relatively difficult it would be for them to bring in a second commentary and production team. Still, this seems to me to be the most logical course for the league to take if it takes away the underlying justification for the conference championships to be fixed to CBS and Fox as they currently are.

One last note with implications for all of this: although Disney is reportedly targeting a piece of one of the existing Sunday packages for ABC, my prediction for what happens in the new contract is that Monday Night Football returns to ABC, while ESPN picks up a (relative to the expanded schedule, at least) pared-back Thursday night schedule with exclusively teams coming off a bye and the late Thanksgiving game on ABC. Whatever new contract the league carves out with London/Saturday/special-occasion games goes to NFL Network in the short term while being earmarked for sale to a streaming outlet in the long term (I think the creation of an extra package is more about divorcing Thursday Night Football from NFL Network than actually selling such a scattershot package to one of the other networks). Relevant to the above discussion, I also think the return of MNF to broadcast could be bad news for NBC. Before the move to ESPN and Sundays becoming the league’s main primetime night, MNF routinely beat the Sunday afternoon packages, which have turned the tables and routinely beat SNF since then; shortly after ESPN took over Mondays, they started routinely threatening and beating the all-time cable audience records until the BCS/College Football Playoff moved to cable, something that never happened on Sundays.

I could see the league giving ABC more marquee games in the early part of the season than NBC, while late in the season, giving ABC limited flexible scheduling modeled off of what the league has done on Saturday of Week 16 the past two years while also giving ABC tentative games whose ratings performance depend on player healthiness and overall team performance as little as possible (i.e., Cowboys games). NBC would want the best game of the week at least a quarter of the time, as well as at least some early-season weeks where they have a better game than ABC (including at least some Cowboys games), but the worst-case scenario could result in flexible scheduling being NBC’s only advantage over ABC, in which case NBC could push for severely weakening the protection system, potentially with no protections at all for networks in singleheader weeks. If Sunday nights are weakened enough by a resurgent Monday night, that could provide all the more reason for NBC to pick up two divisional or wild-card games in certain years, just so NBC isn’t that much more obviously the “fourth network” where the league is concerned. As it is Disney picking up two packages and decoupling Sunday afternoon packages from conferences is likely to result in NBC paying less than any of the other networks outside of whatever extra package the league creates.

3 thoughts on “What Would a Conference-Free NFL Playoff Television Schedule Look Like?

  1. One model that keeps springing to mind (to me as a Brit at least) in a world where no network has any “default” games is how the Premier League sells its TV rights.

    Each of the five main packages is tied to a timeslot*, and confers a certain quota of game-pick priority spots. So, for instance, “Package A” is 32 Saturday 12:30pm kickoffs, of which 20 are “second picks” and the other 12 “fifth picks.” (Full details of each package are here.)

    (*Package E is a Monday/Friday either/or, and also carries eight Sunday 2pm games off Package C, which fills its quota with eight Saturday 7:45pm games. I believe this – and the way these 32-game packages cover 34 weeks, with 26 five-game slates and eight four-game ones – relates to how the schedule intertwines with the Champions/Europa League, FA Cup, and EFL Cup. The other two packages cover two midweek sets of games each, and were as explicitly carved up for streaming as the potential Game 17 package, maybe moreso. And indeed Amazon picked one of them up.)

    Essentially, every set of PL games are allocated to a certain “matchday” – usually a weekend, a handful midweek – at the initial schedule release in June. (It can’t be done any earlier because promotion and relegation means the 20 teams involved aren’t all known with certainty until deep into May!) And from the ten games in each matchday (all of which nominally have the tentative Saturday 3pm that gets used for all non-televised games* four or five get chosen by the broadcasters who own the respective picks. The first three months or so are chosen before the season begins; there’s then a rolling version of flexible scheduling where a new tranche of picks get chosen at once with multiple weeks’ notice. At the time of writing, picks have been made up to and including the Feb 29/March 1 weekend.

    (*Saturday 3pm is the “traditional” kickoff time for English football, and in fact there’s a blanket ban on all football being televised in the UK at that time, an attempt to protect smaller teams’ in-stadium attendance. So the “unpicked” PL games are played then, with one exception; games involving a team coming off a Europa League game on the previous Thursday night. These games are moved to Sunday and still aren’t televised in the UK.)

    There are five main game windows for NFL games too – the two Sunday day windows and the three primetime nights. Perhaps each of those could have a quota of pick priorities, just like the PL timeslots do. And one idea I have is that the day packages could be “semi-conferenced.” There would still be one AFC package and one NFC package, but each of these packages would then also come with a package of nine – assuming a 19-week schedule – doubleheaders per season. Those games would be freely chosen in the same picking process as the primetime games.

    The Kickoff Game would be immune to the pick process; it would continue to be Juicy Opponent @ SB Champs, likely picked by the NFL itself, unless there was a logistical issue like how the Ravens couldn’t host the Kickoff Game in 2013 due to a clash with an Orioles game. This will come up again for the same reason in 2020 if – when? – the Ravens win it all…) So would the neutral-site games, for logistical reasons. I propose four games are split off from that 16-game set: two would be London/Europe evening games that would be played as the first half of a doubleheader, each on a different network; one would be a Mexico game in the MNF package, as happened in 2019 and as was meant to happen in 2018; the fourth would be a domestic neutral-site game on Thanksgiving night, a quirky tradition to go with the Lions/Cowboys games. This also means all four networks would be getting one of these games per year, leaving 12 to form the NFLN/Amazon package along with maybe some Saturday bowl season games.

    The season (prior to the final week) would be split into three parts for scheduling purposes, kinda like now:

    * Weeks 1-8: no flexible scheduling, all games are network- and slot-locked. MNF has four first picks. TNF starts Week 4 and has first pick that week plus one other. AFC and NFC nets each have four doubleheaders and split the other two first picks. SNF has no first picks in this period, but likely has multiple second/third picks, and the separately-allocated Kickoff Game also remains part of the SNF package.
    * Weeks 9-14: early flex window. SNF own all first picks, but they are tentative and can be swapped out for another Sunday game on two occasions in this window with 12 days’ notice (same as the early flex now). However, the 4:25 doubleheader pick is considered protected; the network can reallocate this protection with 19 days’ notice (ie a week before the SNF flex call). A discarded SNF pick is returned to whichever network would’ve had it as an unpicked game, and a game is crossflexed to rebalance the game count if necessary (recipient network’s choice, 4:25 protection still applies). AFC and NFC nets each have three doubleheaders, two with second picks and one with a third pick. MNF have the other two second picks and one very good neutral-site (probably Mexico) game.
    * Weeks 15-18: flex window. Tentatives are selected in the order SNF, 4:25, MNF. There will be specific arrangements around Christmas each year depending on the day it falls, as now. There are no Thursday games at all at this point; the reason everyone plays on Thursday now is so everyone plays one short week, and if you give everyone a pre-TNF bye then suddenly everyone plays zero short weeks and there’s no need to force more TNF games in. MNF games end week 16, as now. There are some Saturday games in the NFLN package along with the London/Europe day games. Week 18 might be messy as long as the Golden Globes and SNF are on the same network…

    TNF: 10 games (Weeks 4-14 excluding Thanksgiving) involving 20 different teams. Two first picks, including Week 4.
    SNF: 20 games (Weeks 1-18, Kickoff, Thanksgiving night) plus postseason games. 10 adjustable first picks Weeks 9-18 (maximum two adjustments before Week 15).
    MNF: 17 games (Weeks 1-16 with Week 1 doubleheader) plus postseason games. Four first picks. all Weeks 1-8.
    NFLN/”Football Special”: Games with non-standard kickoff times, including 12 neutral-site games.
    AFC/NFC: All games with an (AFC/NFC) road team not in the above packages, plus postseason games and one European game. Nine national games at 4:25p ET, including one first pick Weeks 1-8.

    Assuming the “obvious” rightsholders for each, NBC continue to get the on-paper best primetime package, with the most and (certainly post-DST) best games; they also get a buff to flexible scheduling with only one protected game per week. But the MNF package is at least comparable; only three fewer games, and a stronger slate in the stronger part of the season. None of the networks would be obviously “the fourth network,” especially if they had a clear postseason rotation as mentioned.

  2. I agree with the postseason rotation ideas, but have another slight alternative in terms of how it’d work. Instead of one network getting two divisional games, the “prize” for the network that don’t have any games after that round is specifically the late Sunday game and first pick of who plays in it, regardless of conference.

    The rotation would be four spots with networks moving one space along each year:
    1) 6:40 Divisional Sunday
    2) 3:05 Championship Sunday
    3) Super Bowl
    4) 6:40 Championship Sunday

    The rotation would start CBS, ABC, FOX, NBC in 2023 – ensuring NBC get Olympic years and FOX don’t get election years. Championship Sunday conference allocation would alternate with a “skip” every four years as you’ve proposed.

    Each network would air one game in each round; the extra two WC games in a 14-team playoff would be split between FOX and CBS given their multi-crew setup. The schedule in the first two rounds would be decided via a draft, with networks choosing games and timeslots in the following order according to their spot in the rotation:
    * WC round: 2, 1, 4, 3 (if a 14-team playoff, a “second round” happens in the same order with ABC and NBC skipped)
    * Div round: 1, 4, 3, 2

    So the reward for not having any of the three biggest games is to have the best game in the best slot in the divisional round, and another good slot/game combo the prior week. The reward for not having any of the 6:40 “launchpad” games is a top-pick WC game and timeslot.

    A worked example. Let’s use the 2020 playoff slate, with the 2024 rotation:
    1) NBC 2) CBS 3) ABC 4) FOX

    The draft might then look a bit like this:

    * WC round: CBS select Titans-Patriots Sunday 4:40, NBC select Seahawks-Eagles Saturday 8:20, FOX select Vikings-Saints Sunday 1:05, ABC select Bills-Texans Saturday 4:35
    * Div round: NBC select @ Packers Sunday 6:40, FOX select @ Chiefs Saturday 8:20, ABC select @ Ravens Sunday 3:05, CBS select @ 49ers Saturday 4:35

    (The last three divisional games could’ve been selected in any order. I put @ Chiefs second because it would’ve been expected to be Pats-Chiefs. And the WC round could easily have gone precisely as the actual schedule went, as CBS could’ve preferred Saturday primetime to Sunday late afternoon.)

    If there were a 14-team playoff with the 2 seed playing in the first round and the 7 seed getting in, the WC round draw using this year’s teams (the Rams and Steelers being the 7 seeds in this instance) and assuming a 1:05/4:40/8:20 triple-header on each weekend day:
    * CBS select Packers-Rams Sunday 8:20
    * NBC select Titans-Patriots Saturday 8:20
    * FOX select Seahawks-Eagles Sunday 4:40
    * ABC select Steelers-Chiefs Saturday 4:40
    * CBS select Vikings-Saints Sunday 1:00
    * FOX select Bills-Texans Saturday 1:00

    The problem with this process in a 14-team playoff is that two divisional games (one per division) are ? @ ? – so maybe the timeslot draft for the divisional round happens before the WC games, but the actual game allocations are drafted separately after the penultimate WC game, one draft for each result in the last game.

    (The other problem with the 14-team playoff is two weekend triple-headers mean no room to move a game if needed. Considering the test that made Sunday night playoff football happen was the natural experiment of a game that needed to be moved…)

  3. Interesting takes on all of this Morgan. It will be interesting to see it all play out. It seems to me that the players aren’t as intent on going on strike after the 2020, as they seemed to be perhaps as recently as a year ago. Maybe they know they don’t want to kill the golden goose.

    The change I do expect for the playoffs next season is the Wild Card games on Sunday moving to the 3:05 p.m. EST/12:05 p.m. PST for the 1st game and 6:40 p.m. EST/3:40 p.m. PST for the 2nd game, thus making all 3 rounds of the playoffs have the exact same starting times over this 3 week stretch.

    We’ll see soon enough.

    Go Pack Go today in San Francisco!!! 🙂

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