Last month, Variety reported that the NFL was looking into the possibility of decoupling its Sunday afternoon television contracts from each conference in its next television contract beyond 2022 (no link because Variety’s site is too ad-laden and required me to reload something like three times before I could actually read the article; here’s a brief summary). I could swear I at least saw speculation to that effect during or even before last season, because I’m pretty sure I had the idea for this post back then, but I couldn’t find anything and nothing I saw passing on the Variety report tied it to anything earlier, and in any case it might have just been the sort of baseless speculation my commenters like to get into. If the Variety report is the first time this has come to light, it’s worth noting that the specific phrasing used in the report was that Fox and CBS “could get to air packages that include games from both the NFC and AFC, as opposed to the current system, which keeps the NFC on Fox and the AFC on CBS”, so it’s not even clear that it would mean more than an expansion of the current cross-flex system as opposed to the full decoupling it’s easy to interpret it as (assuming anything like this comes to fruition at all, which it might not).
If the NFL does completely sever Fox and CBS’ respective slates of games from conference affiliation, it would do away with what might seem like an archaic relic of the days before the AFL-NFL merger, but it would also pose a considerable logistical challenge. The NFL is unique among major professional sports leagues in the United States in that television production and distribution for all 256 games are handled by national networks; any game not selected to air in primetime is produced by Fox or CBS for regional distribution in one of their Sunday afternoon timeslots. If which network gets which game isn’t determined by which conference the road team is from, what does determine it?