Category Archives: Sports

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 8

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Selected game: New England @ Denver.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 7-1 v. 4-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter, and these are the top two teams in the division.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Bengals-Broncos and Cardinals-Texans pit two 3-4 teams against each other, and Natives-Saints pits a 3-4 team against a 5-2 team. You’d have to take a below-.500 team if I’m right about the protections.
  • Analysis: The protected games, especially Rams-Vikings, are juicier, but it’s hard to imagine the league flexing out of a game featuring a Cowboys team above .500 (at that mark at worst) going up against what might be the best team in the league.
  • Final prediction: Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys (no change).

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-3 v. 6-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers. The Packers would need to lose to the Lions this week, and then the Bears in the last week before the decision needs to come down, to put this in serious jeopardy.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. In lieu of that, the league’s only options involving only teams at or above .500 are Saints-Rams, which depends on a night game at the Coliseum the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend being an option, or Dolphins-Patriots, which may or may not have been protected.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 7-1 v. 5-2, about as good as could be hoped for at the moment.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Panthers-Saints and Vikings-Falcons are the only games involving only teams above .500.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-4 v. 6-2. The Ravens have snapped their losing skid, but the Steelers might be starting to run away with the division, and this rivalry doesn’t have as much fire as it used to.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Did CBS leave Vikings-Panthers unprotected? If so, it’d be hard to beat. Is it possible for the Coliseum to host a Sunday night game in mid-December, after college football season is over but in the midst of USC finals, and would the NFL be okay with the Eagles having back-to-back Sunday night games? If so, that becomes an option, though if NBC were as desperate for it as one of my commenters thinks they’d have it scheduled to begin with (yes, no one thought the Rams would be this good, but still). But even without those two games, keep an eye on Seahawks-Jaguars. Would the NFL flex out of a game involving a rivalry that still has some resonance and a team with a fanbase far outside its home market for one involving a team most people are only aware of because they’re surprised they’re still in Jacksonville? Wait and see.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 4-3 v. 3-5, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If one of the teams in the tentative weren’t the Cowboys, Rams-Seahawks would be another reason not to flex in Eagles-Rams the previous week, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind. Texans-Jaguars, Bengals-Vikings, and Cardinals-Trumps are worth keeping an eye on as games involving teams at 3-4.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

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.

Atlanta United Is Proof the Sounders’ Success Doesn’t Have to Be Unique

The Seattle Sounders’ eight-year run atop the MLS attendance charts has come to an end. After leading the league in attendance, usually by a significant margin, every year of its existence, earning accolades for their almost Premier League-like atmosphere at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders were beaten out this year by expansion team Atlanta United, which beat the Sounders by 5,000 fans per game, 48,200 to 43,666, and ended the season by setting the all-time single-game record for a game not associated with some other match. It’s a pair of tremendous feats only slightly undermined by the fact that the two teams play in the only two stadiums in MLS with capacities over 40,000 (and in fact the Sounders can only climb above that mark by taking the tarp off the upper deck), with New York City FC, playing at Yankee Stadium, and Toronto FC being the only other teams with capacities even over 30,000.

The success of Atlanta United, and the rave reviews they’ve earned for their own home atmosphere, should be a repudiation of MLS’ stadium-building strategy, one the Sounders’ success should have already discredited. For years MLS’ strategy for growing the league has been to build “soccer-specific stadiums” with capacities in the 18-30,000 range, for the sake of providing a more “intimate atmosphere” compared to the football stadiums that typified the first decade or so of the league’s existence. Seattle and Atlanta almost fell backwards into their huge crowds and rich atmospheres, with soccer being an add-on to their pushes to build new football stadiums, and were it not for the involvement of the owners of their markets’ respective NFL teams, they might have gotten soccer-specific stadiums like everyone else.

The theory behind “soccer-specific stadiums” seemed sound: football stadiums were often cavernous and underutilized for MLS matches, and sizing the stadiums for actual demand seemed like the natural thing to do. Until the season before the Sounders came along, no team had averaged 25,000 fans a game since the league’s inaugural season, so capacities in that range seemed reasonable. But it’s turned out that that may have had more to do with the missteps the pre-Sounders league took in its early days, when it tried to appeal to mainstream soccer fans by adopting timing and other rules more akin to those in other American sports, than with the actual ceiling of soccer in America. Of the bottom 11 teams in attendance, the entire back half of the league, 10 predate the Sounders, and 8 are among the ten teams that existed before the current expansion phase that began in 2005; the only “MLS originals” in the top half of league attendance are the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. NYCFC is the only post-Sounders franchise whose attendance is below 90% of capacity, out of nine teams to fall below that mark; by contrast, only three of the pre-2005 “MLS originals” have average attendance over 90% of capacity, two of which, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City, happen to have two of the three smallest stadiums in the league (and San Jose returned to the league in 2008 after the original team moved to Houston, while SKC is the result of what’s considered one of the most successful team rebrands in the league’s history). The uphill struggle facing the “originals” is such that the Columbus Crew, whose market has a soccer fanbase so strong that it is traditionally chosen to host the national team’s home matches against Mexico in World Cup qualifying, is seeing their owner threatening to move the team to Austin if they can’t get a new stadium – to replace the one for which the term “soccer-specific stadium” was coined in the first place.

We have empirical evidence that at least two franchises are playing in stadiums smaller than they could be. Despite multiple expansions, the Portland Timbers’ average attendance has been at or above Providence Park’s capacity every year of their existence (another expansion is set to add about 4,000 seats), but the real wasted opportunity has involved Orlando City SC. That team played two full seasons at Camping World Stadium, with average attendance in the second season being 31,324, but still went ahead with building Orlando City Stadium with a capacity of 25,500, which fans filled at a 98% clip this past season. The same goes for Minnesota United, who in this inaugural season averaged 20,538 fans at TCF Bank Stadium, but is building a stadium seating only 19,400 – after MLS rejected a competing proposal for a Minnesota franchise that would have had the team playing at the Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. I could understand, to some extent, artificially limiting capacities to create a condition of scarcity and sell tickets for more, and the fact that Portland is the only team selling out their stadium quite so consistently could be used to make an argument that their stadium is the only one that really needs to get significantly bigger (along with San Jose and Kansas City). But unlike Seattle, Atlanta isn’t really the sort of market that comes to mind as a truly soccer-crazy market; after all, MLS was understandably hesitant about returning to the Southeast after the two Florida teams it had in its early days became the only two MLS teams ever to be contracted, and given its demographics Florida should in theory have more soccer fans than Atlanta, a city that, fair or not, has a reputation for being a frontrunning melting pot with little in the way of truly passionate fanbases for its teams. What other cities might have developed fanbases and gameday cultures on par with Seattle and Atlanta but never got the chance?

There’s no reason for any post-2009 franchise not to replicate the success seen by Seattle and now Atlanta, no reason why every one of them shouldn’t have the sort of gameday atmosphere seen in those two cities. It doesn’t take playing in an NFL stadium in every city; only building soccer-specific stadiums with larger capacities over 30,000. That may seem like a lofty goal for American soccer; the Premier League’s median stadium capacity is around 32,000. But to accept less is not merely to accept that MLS will never grow bigger than it is today; it is to accept that it would never grow bigger than it was before the recent boom in soccer’s popularity. Yet no stadium being built or proposed has a larger capacity than 25,000, including those proposed by the two most likely expansion franchises in Sacramento and Cincinnati (though Nashville seems to be moving down the fast track to a 27,500-seat stadium). Commissioner Don Garber has signaled his willingness to accept viable proposals for larger stadiums, but for now the thinking seems to be, go soccer-specific with capacities in the 20,000 range, or go bust. But if MLS is truly interested in growing the sport in America and helping it reach its full potential, not just keeping up the appearance of it, it needs to be willing to dream big – and that means letting its teams build the soccer stadiums of the future, not the past.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 7

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 5-2 v. 3-3. The Broncos aren’t playing as well as they might have looked to start the season, but this’ll still be difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX). (Texans-Rams likely does not need to be protected, to avoid trying to host a night game at the LA Coliseum, though this isn’t really known for certain; this also affects other Rams home games below.)
  • Other possible games: Saints-Bills is the best option in terms of records, while Vikings-Skraelings and Texans-Rams are a bit more lopsided.
  • Analysis: Right now Vikings-Skraelings and Texans-Rams have the exact same pair of records as the tentative, and even if the Broncos lost and each of the two teams in one of those games won (and the Rams are on bye this week), it’s doubtful it would overcome the tentative game bias. At 4-2 v. 4-2, Saints-Bills isn’t much of an improvement either, especially given how the Bills aren’t a name team. 6-2 v. 3-4 or 5-3 v. 3-4 is the sort of point when you start thinking about pulling a flex, but in a season where the league is as flat as it is it’s about as good as could be hoped for; I’m not sure 5-2 v. 5-2 with less name teams, or even Vikings-Skraelings at 6-2 v. 4-3, is going to get it done. (It also doesn’t help that the Broncos play on Monday night.) I could understand if the NFL pulls the flex, but I’d still probably be pretty surprised.
  • Final prediction: New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos (no change).

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 6-1 v. 3-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If the league needed an excuse to keep a lopsided Cowboys game, the fact that Natives-Saints is the only unprotected game involving two teams at or above .500 would do it.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-3 v. 5-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers. And the next two weeks, the Packers are on bye and hosting the Lions; they’d need to lose that game and then lose to the Bears in the last week before the decision needs to come down to put this in serious jeopardy.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. In lieu of that, the league’s only options involving only teams at or above .500 are Saints-Rams, which depends on a night game at the Coliseum the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend being an option, or Dolphins-Patriots, which may or may not have been protected.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 6-1 v. 4-2, about as good as could be hoped for at the moment.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Panthers-Saints is the best alternative at the moment, with Vikings-Falcons, Broncos-Dolphins, and Texans-Titans being dark horses.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-4 v. 5-2. Starting to become concerningly lopsided and the Steelers might be running away with the division, and this rivalry doesn’t have as much fire as it used to.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Did CBS leave Vikings-Panthers unprotected? If so, it’d be hard to beat. Is it possible for the Coliseum to host a Sunday night game in mid-December, after college football season is over but in the midst of USC finals, and would the NFL be okay with the Eagles having back-to-back Sunday night games? If so, that becomes an option, though if NBC were as desperate for it as one of my commenters thinks they’d have it scheduled to begin with (yes, no one thought the Rams would be this good, but still). But even without those two games, keep an eye on Seahawks-Jaguars. Would the NFL flex out of a game involving a rivalry that still has some resonance and a team with a fanbase far outside its home market for one involving a team most people are only aware of because they’re surprised they’re still in Jacksonville? Wait and see.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 3-3 v. 3-4, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If one of the teams in the tentative weren’t the Cowboys, Rams-Seahawks would be another reason not to flex in Eagles-Rams the previous week, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind and Texans-Jaguars continuing to lurk as a dark horse.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 6

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 9 (November 5):

  • Tentative game: Oakland @ Miami
  • Prospects: 2-4 v. 3-2. Okay, not great, but not necessarily something worth burning the first-ever early flex on either.
  • Possible alternatives: With the Chiefs still maxed out on primetime appearances, expect CBS to protect Broncos-Eagles over Chiefs-Cowboys, and with their next-best available game being 3-3 v. 3-3, don’t expect them to be much of a factor for losing a game. For Fox, Falcons-Panthers (3-2 v. 4-2) and Washington-Seahawks (3-2 v. 3-2) are their best games.
  • Analysis: Let’s say both teams in the tentative lose to go to 2-5 v. 3-3, while all four of the potential Fox games win to create two games at 4-2 v. 5-2 and 4-2 v. 4-2. Does the NFL pull the early flex on the game Fox doesn’t protect? It’s certainly tempting, assuming there aren’t further restrictions than are already known to keep the NFL from using early flexes on any but the most catastrophically bad tentatives.

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 4-2 v. 3-2, attractive enough to be difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX). (Texans-Rams likely does not need to be protected, to avoid trying to host a night game at the LA Coliseum, though this isn’t really known for certain; this also affects other Rams home games below.)
  • Other possible games: Saints-Bills and Vikings-Skraelings are the best options, while Texans-Rams lurks a step or two behind.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 5-1 v. 2-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Natives-Saints is the only game between two teams above .500, with Cardinals-Texans pitting two teams at that mark.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-2 v. 4-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. Bucs-Falcons is also a game Fox might have protected if I was wrong about their protection, though it’s a bit iffier. Saints-Rams would be an option if a night game at the Coliseum was an option. That leaves only games involving teams at .500 (Panthers-Jets, Jaguars-Cardinals) unless CBS protected Broncos-Raiders to leave Dolphins-Patriots open.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 5-1 v. 3-2, and if the Seahawks play more like the Seahawks of old from now on it’ll be very difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Vikings-Falcons, Panthers-Saints, and Broncos-Dolphins are the best options, with Rams-Cardinals a viable dark horse. Chiefs-Jets would at least be a dark horse if the Chiefs weren’t still maxed out and it weren’t a skosh lopsided. Lions-Ravens and Texans-Titans pit two 3-3 teams.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-3 v. 4-2 and for the AFC North lead if it were played today.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Vikings-Panthers is a pretty strong potential matchup if CBS left it unprotected; only Eagles-Rams could really come on par with it, but neither is likely to overcome the tentative game bias at this point even if Coliseum night games were an option. Seahawks-Jaguars, Jets-Broncos, and Titans-Cardinals are dark horses.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 2-4, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks is the strongest game on the slate, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind and Jets-Saints and Cardinals-Trumps dark horses. Texans-Jaguars is a bit further back than that as a battle of 3-3 teams, but would be for the AFC South lead if played today.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 5

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-1, and the Patriots probably resemble the team with three wins more than the one with two losses.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX). (Texans-Rams likely does not need to be protected, to avoid trying to host a night game at the LA Coliseum; this also affects other Rams home games below.)
  • Other possible games: Saints-Bills, Jets-Bucs, and Vikings-Skraelings are all 3-2 v. 2-2 games, with Texans-Rams slightly worse at 3-2 v. 2-3.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 4-1 v. 2-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Natives-Saints and Bucs-Dolphins pit two 2-2 teams against each other, and that’s about it without going to more 2-3 teams like the Cowboys.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-1 v. 3-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games, though the only reason there aren’t two winless teams on the Turkey Day slate is because they played each other. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d be a very real threat for a move to Sunday night. Bucs-Falcons is also a game Fox might have protected if I was wrong about their protection and that would be a flex candidate. Saints-Rams would be an option if a night game at the Coliseum was an option. That leaves basically CBS’ unprotected game without going to teams below .500.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 4-1 v. 3-2, and if the Seahawks play more like the Seahawks of old from now on it’ll be very difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Vikings-Falcons and Lions-Ravens are the most attractive options, while Panthers-Saints, Bucs-Packers, and Broncos-Dolphins involve teams at 2-2 playing teams above that mark. Chiefs-Jets would also be an attractive option if the Chiefs weren’t still maxed out.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-2 v. 3-2 and for the AFC North lead if it were played today.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If the NFL did want to beg out of this game, there’d be no shortage of options: Vikings-Panthers, Jets-Broncos, and Seahawks-Jaguars are all matchups between teams above .500, as would Eagles-Rams if Coliseum night games were an option. Lions-Bucs is more of a dark horse.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 2-3, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks is the strongest game on the slate, with Jets-Saints and Dolphins-Bills a bit behind.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 4

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only this weekend’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). NBC appearances for all teams: KC 2, NE 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), NYG 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), DAL 3 (2 flexible), GB 3 (1 flexible), ATL 2 (1 semi-flexible), OAK 3 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), WAS 2 (1 flexible), IND 1, SEA 2 (1 flexible), HOU 1, DEN 2 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), PIT 3 (1 semi-flexible, 2 flexible), DET 1 (semi-flexible), MIA 1 (semi-flexible), PHI 2 (flexible), BAL 1 (flexible), MIN 1. All primetime appearances for all teams: KC 6, NE 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), NYG 4 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), DAL 5 (2 flexible), GB 5 (1 flexible), ATL 5 (1 semi-flexible), OAK 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), WAS 5 (1 flexible), IND 4, SEA 4 (1 flexible), HOU 4, DEN 5 (1 semi-flexible, 1 flexible), PIT 6 (1 semi-flexible, 2 flexible), DET 4 (1 semi-flexible), MIA 4 (1 semi-flexible), PHI 5 (2 flexible), BAL 4 (1 flexible), MIN 4, NO 2, LAC 2, ARI 2, CHI 3, TEN 2, CAR 2, CIN 2, TB 2, JAX 0, all other teams 1.

Starting this year I will only talk about early-flex games in this space if they’re actually bad enough to think about flexing out.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 2-2 v. 3-1, and it’s hard to see the Patriots truly being that mediocre for long.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts or Texans-Rams if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Along with Texans-Rams, Saints-Bills, Jets-Bucs, and Vikings-Skraelings are all games where the worse team is 2-2, and that’s about as good as you can expect.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 3-1 v. 2-2, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Cardinals-Texans and Natives-Saints are two matchups of 2-2 teams, while Bucs-Dolphins is effectively equivalent to that at 2-1 v. 1-2.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-1 v. 3-1 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games, though two of the teams on the Turkey Day slate are winless at the moment. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d be a very real threat for a move to Sunday night. Bucs-Falcons is also a game Fox might have protected if I was wrong about their protection and that would be a flex candidate. Besides CBS’ unprotected game, Saints-Rams is also an option.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 3-1 v. 2-2, but as Mike Tirico pointed out on Sunday’s pregame show, the Seahawks have a habit of always starting relatively slow and catching fire late.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Except for Giants-Raiders, all of Fox’s games (Vikings-Falcons, Panthers-Saints, Lions-Ravens, Bucs-Packers, and Rams-Cardinals) involve teams at 2-2 (2-1 in the Bucs’ case) playing teams above that mark. Among CBS’ games, Chiefs-Jets also fits that bill, but see the Chiefs’ number of primetime appearances again, and Broncos-Dolphins does as well, while Texans-Titans pits two 2-2 teams against one another.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 2-2 v. 3-1, so not great and this rivalry isn’t as hot as in Ray Lewis’ heyday, but it can still attract an audience.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Eagles-Rams would pit two teams above .500 if Fox left it unprotected, as would Lions-Bucs. Vikings-Panthers and Jets-Broncos (the latter of which is a long shot for CBS’ protection) pit teams at .500 against teams above it, while Titans-Cardinals is a battle of .500 teams.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 2-2 v. 2-2, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks is the strongest game on the slate. Jets-Saints and Cardinals-Trumps are battles of two 2-2 teams. Dolphins-Bills has potential as well.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

What Happens If Disney Gets Blacked Out On Altice?

If it weren’t for the crappy state of everything else going on in the country (including Ajit Pai seemingly being about to dismantle net neutrality) it would be an exciting time for the evolution of the TV industry, as the cable bundle looks like it’s about to be on its last legs. Earlier this month, reports came out that Viacom, Discovery, Scripps, AMC, and A&E were joining forces to form their own, relatively cheap, skinny bundle called “Philo” – the inclusion of the last of which was very surprising to me, as A&E is co-owned by Disney and Hearst, which also (separately) co-own ESPN, and just the other four companies forming their own skinny bundle is the last thing ESPN wants. But Disney and ESPN have a bigger fight on their hands. Altice, the French conglomerate that now controls Cablevision and Suddenlink, hass Cablevision’s old carriage agreement with Disney expiring after this weekend. Disney has faced contentious carriage agreements with the likes of DirecTV and Dish in recent years, which have gotten certain elements of the media worked up over the possibility of showdowns with companies that had ramped up their rhetoric about the high price of sports and stood up to regional and college sports networks, but in the end the power of ESPN was too much to resist and the companies sucked up and signed up for another round of fee increases and adding the Longhorn and SEC networks. But just days before the expiration of the agreement, there seems to be no end in sight to the Altice standoff, and plenty of signs that Disney’s luck and indispensability has run out, not just with Altice but with other cable operators as well.

Were it not for these two stories, I wouldn’t normally think the decline of the cable bundle has reached a tipping point. Large majorities of people still subscribe to the cable bundle… but they’ve now fallen below the 80% mark, and it’s clear that things have reached a critical moment. Disney trying to add yet another high-priced regional ESPN spinoff, one with significantly less value than the SEC Network, certainly looks like an ill-timed misstep that sent things spiraling down further (and Disney wants Altice to add not only ACC Network to a fairly basic package in New York City, but SEC Network as well). On the other side, Disney has announced the launch of OTT Disney and ESPN services, with the latter being limited to events that won’t hurt the value of ESPN to cable providers too much to lose but the former being stocked by Disney pulling its movies off Netflix a relatively short time after signing a big deal to put them on. Continuing the return of sports to broadcast, Fox will air the majority of next year’s World Cup matches on its broadcast network, meaning if the United States makes it, matches that gave ESPN gerbonkers ratings in the last two World Cups will air on broadcast where they belong, possibly even on weekdays. And while I’m still, in general, skeptical of streaming services’ ability to win major sports rights while also justifying their cost, in the wake of their Thursday Night Football deal, it’s hard for me to argue against the notion that Amazon at least has the potential to overcome most, though not all, of the obstacles I worry about (the fundamental problem of streaming being inferior to deliver live events than real linear channels, which bedeviled Amazon this past Thursday, is in my view ultimately insurmountable) to become a real player for mid- to lower-tier sports events.

There’s also the recent history of carriage standoffs to consider. Before its acquisition by Altice, Suddenlink kept Viacom channels off its systems for nearly three years, with Cable One possibly still leaving those channels off their lineups, and both companies made clear that they were just fine without Viacom’s networks. Viacom is on the expensive end of the non-sports four and, at least at the time, didn’t have as many shows with serious buzz as the others, so it could have been considered more expendable than most other Big Nine members. By dropping Disney channels, Altice would be risking a significantly larger backlash, not only from sports fans but from fans of Disney Channel’s kids shows, especially with the Yankees playing their wild-card game on ESPN Tuesday. But if it coupled dropping the Disney channels with a significant drop in customers’ bills, it could gain more than that in goodwill from non-sports fans.

Meanwhile, sports and Disney fans aren’t as out of luck as in the carriage disputes of the past, thanks to online cable providers like Sling TV. No service carrying ESPN would cost less than the $10-15 that’s likely to be the most Altice would refund customers; Altice’s moves wouldn’t totally break up the cable bundle unless they dropped multiple companies’ programming. But what would hurt Altice, but is likely to hurt Disney more in the long term, is if customers dropped Altice’s TV service entirely in favor of Sling or a more comprehensive service like PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, YouTube, or Hulu. Based on listed prices, dropping down from a TV+Internet bundle to just Internet should save $20/month with Optimum for New York customers; throw in fees charged only to TV customers, and that could be enough to justify getting one of the online bundles for $35/month (and that’s assuming they don’t drop Optimum entirely for Verizon FiOS). Sports and Disney fans that drop Altice’s TV services entirely are no longer directly putting pressure on Altice to add them back to the lineup. If that gives Altice enough backbone to leave Disney off the lineup entirely, especially if people with no investment in those networks start telling them not to restore them and threatening to quit if they do (especially once Philo launches), it puts Disney, and ESPN more specifically, in a very tight spot financially, as well as in terms of standing up to other providers, with deals with Verizon, AT&T/DirecTV, and the old Time Warner Cable deals now controlled by Charter looming over the next two years.

In 2011, Dish chairman Charlie Ergen suggested there was room for a cable or satellite operator to position themselves as a cheaper non-sports alternative; today he thinks Altice can survive without ESPN, and he certainly must be rooting for it. If Altice is successful at saying no to Disney and ESPN, it gives other providers, as well as potential future online providers, more confidence to say the same. Altice is not one of the larger providers, but if they manage to weather the storm and spend two years or more without ESPN on their lineup, Disney will suddenly look like an emperor with no clothes, and will find it hard for their demands to be met when they enter negotiations with AT&T, Charter, and further down the line, Comcast and Dish, and will find it especially difficult to get the ACC Network off the ground. Couple that with the pending launch of Philo representing the one thing Disney hoped to avoid by staying shackled to the cable bundle, and suddenly there’s a very real possibility that ESPN goes full-on direct-to-consumer with all of their content before the end of the decade (and indeed A&E’s inclusion in Philo starts to look more understandable if Disney thinks the cable bundle is already collapsing). Sports fans would probably still need Fox, NBC, and Turner’s networks to get all the sports they want and need, at least in the short term, but a successful standoff with ESPN would also allow cable operators to show down with those companies for lower fees and lower penetration for expensive regional sports networks. It’s possible the sports four-and-a-half will start to find that clinging to the old cable bundle model will bring down their smaller and non-sports networks more than prop them up, making a sports-specific bundle an increasingly viable proposition. At that point, Disney might just bail on cable operators and even their would-be competitors and seek to salvage whatever revenue (and data) they can for themselves.

Even if Disney and Altice reach a deal, it could still be bad news for Disney, ESPN, and sports leagues. Disney wants to ratchet up its fees and restore some of the coverage lost when they gave providers flexibility to offer skinny bundles. If Disney takes lower fee increases than they’re hoping for and keeps ESPN at present levels of penetration to avoid the catastrophe of being outright dropped, they’re going to have to budget less money for production and rights fees. Look for more layoffs to come down the pike and ESPN to scale back on what they’re willing to bid for rights as they come up early in the next decade. And the ads Altice has been running have arguably already increased awareness of just how much of their cable bill is being passed on to ESPN regardless of how much or little customers watch it, meaning if a deal is reached without ESPN being dropped, there could be a deluge of customers dropping service.

Keep an eye on how this situation develops over the next couple days, because no matter what happens, it could well mark the point of no return for the sports cable boom, as well as the beginning of the end for the cable bundle as we know it, and the start of shaping whatever comes next.

For Fans of Lesser Sports Properties, the Party is Over

Back when I was posting more regularly about the sports TV wars – in part because the wars themselves were burning brighter and the stakes seemed higher – a point I routinely made was that, as good as the wars would be for the largest, most popular entities with content that could attract large audiences to sports networks, they would be an absolute boon to lesser entities that might not otherwise attract much of an audience at all, or even enough to justify their existence, as the glut of sports networks looked for properties to fill out the rest of their time. Truly tiny leagues and conferences didn’t see much of a bump from the wars (a TV deal with CBS Sports Network only kept the UFL afloat for an additional half season) but lower-mid-tier leagues, the sort that could attract audiences approaching a million on broadcast and regularly top several hundred thousand on networks the size of FS1 and NBCSN, saw their visibility vastly increased. As I explained in my book The Game to Show the Games (and as expanded upon here previously) no sport benefited from the glut of sports networks more than soccer, even before the sports TV wars properly became a thing, as a veritable soccer boom enveloped English-speaking America driven in large measure by coverage of the English Premier League on Fox Soccer Channel and its predecessor Fox Sports World, driving NBC to not only break the bank for Premier League rights but to make it as much of a tentpole for NBCSN as the NHL.

If no sport benefited more than soccer from the sports TV boom, no single deal demonstrated the power of TV to elevate a sport more than the Premier League’s deal with NBC. NBC’s high-quality coverage, semi-regular games on broadcast television, and dizzying array of games on NBCSN only scratched the surface of what NBC would do for the Premier League in America. Perhaps more remarkable was NBC’s decision to place all the games it couldn’t fit on its linear networks on an array of “Extra Time” channels and available for streaming for any subscriber to a cable package that included NBCSN. American viewers could watch every single Premier League game live, something people in England itself couldn’t say, if only because the Premier League contracts there were arranged to protect gate revenues, especially at lower-tier clubs.

This week, NBC announced that those games not airing on NBC’s linear services would now be available on a “Premier League Pass” subscription service, no longer free with NBCSN. The headline on Re/code touting this deal focused on the “no cable subscription required” aspect of the service, which is a bit disingenuous considering games on NBC’s cable networks aren’t part of the deal, but not really any different from people who get ESPN3 from their Internet provider (or who sign up for ESPN’s long-delayed direct-to-consumer offering) and get to watch mid-major college sports and less popular events without access to ESPN’s actual linear networks. Despite its uselessness to cord-cutters, though, I was surprised to see headlines on more soccer-focused sites bemoaning what a big step backward this was for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League, with Vice Sports going so far as to claim that the move of what it admits is “the crappiest third” of Premier League games to a premium service amounts to NBC “kill[ing] America’s EPL Golden Age“.

Certainly for Premier League fans used to signing up for the cable bundle, this is a huge step backwards. $50 is a relatively steep price, though for an entire season of Premier League games it compares favorably to American sports leagues’ pay-per-view/out-of-market/streaming services, which often top $100. And it’s not like Premier League fans can save money by just signing up for Premier League Pass, since again, it doesn’t include games on NBC’s linear networks. But it’s hard to declare the loss of the least interesting, most perfunctory matchups, that were already consigned to streaming and overflow channels, as completely undermining the visibility and value of the Premier League on American television, especially since given the ongoing shifts in the media landscape, a move like this may have been inevitable. Even if Extra Time wasn’t really “too good to be true” even at the time, setting aside specialized channels and propping up the cable bundle even more was becoming difficult to justify. With Premier League Pass, NBC is pivoting towards the sports distribution system of the future, one that more specifically targets fans of various sports, that sports networks in general will have to pivot towards.

As such, I’m not sure I agree with Richard Deitsch that this is entirely about monetizing a more expensive Premier League rights deal; if so it would raise the question of whether the deal was really worth it to begin with. I think there’s a bigger picture to look at here. Going back to its days as Versus, NBCSN has staked its territory around providing comprehensive coverage of sports that might get shorter shrift at ESPN or Fox, and that’s a territory that lends itself well to providing services oriented directly at those niche sports fans. The NBC Sports Gold service already sells access to many of those niche sports bundled together for up to $70 a year, but depending on how many butthurt Premier League fans (especially those that have attached themselves to teams further down the table) swallow their pride and pony up, Premier League Pass could easily make them more money. I could easily see NBC as laying the groundwork for the day it may ultimately have to shutter NBCSN in its current form and fold many of its rights into networks like CNBC or USA as the cable bundle finally utterly collapses, folding together many of its mid-to-lower tier rights into a direct-to-consumer offering targeted at the niche sports fans NBCSN serves today. I may have felt Fox was better positioned to run down ESPN than anyone else (certainly Fox themselves did) before it turned out Fox didn’t quite have the quality of rights to convince people to turn to FS1 on a regular basis, and I’m skeptical that anyone other than ESPN will survive the collapse of the cable bundle and shift to Internet streaming, but NBC may be better positioned than any of the alternatives to pivot to marketing a national service directly to the consumer, offering a simple value proposition to fans of niche sports (ignoring the question of the fate of local sports and what it would mean for Fox and NBC). With Premier League Pass, NBC is building the groundwork and subscriber base for whenever the day may come when NBC Sports Gold has to become its main offering to sports fans.

Ultimately, I think the effect of the Internet will be to collapse any intermediate distinctions preventing a step down from the ESPN level directly to pure streaming, with the only distinction being between the resources and quality poured into that streaming, with the likes of Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, and potentially Google on the high end, down to lesser offerings oriented towards more niche audiences like Premier League Pass, all the way down to free streams where there’s no room for monetization and no budget for any but the most rudimentary setups at all. For the truly tiniest leagues, I’m already seeing signs of streaming, of various degrees of monetization, being a boon to them; when the number of channels is effectively limitless, there’s little reason not to put up a stream of every game you have so long as you have the resources for it, especially when it comes to leagues popular in their home countries that just need to export their feeds to the States. But for these mid-tier leagues that have become used to comprehensive coverage subsidized by non-sports fans who continue to subscribe to the cable bundle, the party is over. Even if you believe that the most apocalyptic scenarios still involve the vast majority of Americans continuing to subscribe to some sort of comprehensive cable bundle for the foreseeable future, there’s still clear evidence of the fear of cord-cutting and sports-free packages driving sports networks to reduce their investment in mid-tier properties that don’t drive enough viewership and subscriptions on their own to justify the level of expense the cable bundle has inflated their perceived value to. Services like Premier League Pass are the first sign of sports networks sending a message that it’s time for sports fans to pay more of their fair share of the boom of sports television that has erupted in recent years.

Is ESPN Giving Up on IndyCar?

If you’ve been paying more attention to the sports media landscape than I’ve been covering for you, you know that ESPN this past week let loose with a barrage of layoffs, firing over a hundred people including a number of prominent on-air and online personalities. Obviously, this is in part ESPN attempting to trim the fat for a cord-cutting future, one where live event rights to compel people to sign up and stay signed up for cable, or any future direct-to-consumer offering, are the most important thing for the future of the business and all else is just gravy, something only to be risked if they make enough money to justify it, a future where linear television exists primarily as a conduit for popular live events and anything else is just filling time. Hence, heavy cuts to ESPN’s journalism operations, which don’t help ESPN collect higher subscriber fees or appreciably boost ratings, and studio analysts, which are mainly relevant if at all as programming bracketing live games, especially with highlight shows like SportsCenter being less relevant with highlights being widely available online, but comparably fewer cuts to live game analysts and announcers. But not all sports are created equal. ESPN makes these cuts on the heels of a multi-million dollar agreement with the Big Ten that hasn’t even been officially announced yet, one that to an outside observer makes little sense in the context of the layoffs, but which ESPN sees as critically important, as high-value programming driving subscriptions and eyeballs and which, even splitting the contract with Fox, deprives Fox or any rival of that programming that might bestow money and credibility on them and potentially allow them to move closer to on par with ESPN (the impending launch of the ACC Network, on the other hand, looks all the more questionable). But less popular sports, especially those sports that require a large amount of personnel separate from or superfluous to your other sports, might not be worth the expense.

To my knowledge, no more than two play-by-play men have been confirmed to be fired as part of the layoffs, one of them being longtime auto racing announcer Allen Bestwick:


Before Bestwick, the last two announcers of the Indianapolis 500 were Marty Reid and, in an infamous one-year experiment marred by over-emphasis on Danica Patrick, Todd Harris. Neither is still with ESPN. During ESPN’s most recent stint covering NASCAR races, the three lead announcers for the Sprint Cup series were Dr. Jerry Punch, Reid, and Bestwick. Punch is also among those that were fired. As Bestwick’s tweet indicates, he’ll continue to serve as a lame duck for the rest of the IndyCar season, including the 500 (as will Punch), but after that? Quite possibly the only personality ESPN has left with auto racing announcing experience is Paul Page, who called the 500 all but three years from 1988 through 2004, and who currently is reduced to calling the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and nothing else. Even discounting the play-by-play spot, if ESPN can’t replace Punch the 500 will have fewer than three pit reporters for the first time at least since ABC started airing it live, and hiring someone new would seem to defeat the point. And next year is the last year of ABC’s contract to air a grand total of five or six races, which raises the question: why would ESPN invest money in a sport when they just fired its play-by-play man and best pit reporter (as well as main alternative for the play-by-play spot) as part of attempting to cut their expenses to the bone?

ABC has felt like it’s been on its way out as a television partner of the IndyCar Series since the then-Versus network took over cable coverage in 2009; that it would renew its relationship in 2011, after the Comcast-NBC merger that would have allowed Comcast to unify coverage under one roof if ESPN didn’t want to, was somewhat surprising, but with the subsequent departure of NASCAR and the NHRA from ESPN leaving those five-six IndyCar races on ABC as the only motorsports content ESPN produces, it may be an expense ESPN feels it can’t afford when only the 500 truly produces appreciable numbers, even with Bestwick and Punch broadening their repertoire into college sports in recent years. About the only reason to keep it around is to keep ABC’s status as the only television partner the 500 has ever had, but that hasn’t stopped many other longstanding associations from changing hands in recent years – perhaps most pertinently, the move of golf’s British Open first to cable as the only home of live coverage and then to NBC, ending its long relationship with ABC and bringing major golf back to NBC after that network had its own long relationship with the US Open ended in favor of Fox. It’s easy to see ESPN throwing up its hands and letting NBC have full rights to the entire series, including the Indy 500 with coverage potentially hosted by Bob Costas or Mike Tirico, and Bestwick and Punch joining NBC’s team for IndyCar, NASCAR, or both. ESPN’s relationships with the British Open and NHRA were both bought out a year early as the new contracts began, and ESPN attempted to do the same with NASCAR; it’s easy to surmise that ESPN would not only be willing to give up IndyCar rights but surrender the final year of its deal similarly, and thus leave ESPN without any motorsports coverage for the first time practically since its founding.

All this brings me to one last important point. I’ve mentioned before what a boon the sports TV wars have been for smaller leagues and conferences that have been able to get television exposure and revenue that would have been unthinkable ten years ago, even if on relatively obscure networks. Now, however, the most immediate victims of cord-cutting might be those smaller leagues – or perhaps more to the point, mid-tier leagues like IndyCar that don’t move the needle but attract considerable expense regardless. If the firing of Bestwick and Punch suggests ESPN won’t even come to the table in the next IndyCar negotiations, IndyCar’s best bet to attract much of a rights fee in its next contract might be dependent on whether or not Fox is interested in sweeping in and picking up the rights, and Fox may balk at airing the 500 and risking a rain delay that bumps up against the NASCAR race the same day. (NBC also airs Formula 1 from Monaco the same day, but that may be less of an issue.) Otherwise, barring a surprise CBS-Turner combined bid, NBC might be able to essentially name its price, similar to where it found itself with NASCAR when ESPN and Turner abandoned ship on the sport. ESPN’s newfound frugality is very bad news for entities that don’t offer enough high-quality content to justify increased rights fees or a significant number of maintained subscriptions. It reduces the number of outlets available to them and forces them to find shelter with entities that remain vulnerable to suffering even more than ESPN if the linear cable market contracts further. If you’re banking on increased rights fees but your next contract negotiation is even a year away, and you’re not one of the major college conferences, pro leagues, major golf competitions, NASCAR, FIFA, or the Olympics, it’s time to ratchet down your expectations considerably.