How Thursday Night Football on Amazon Might Be Putting the Final Nail in the Coffin of the Regional Sports Network Market

When word came out that Amazon had guaranteed advertisers 12.5 million viewers for its new Thursday Night Football package, most observers poo-pooed the notion that they would get anything close to that and figured Amazon would find themselves in a massive financial hole trying to make up for it with very limited commercial inventory with which to do so, especially any that would be of any use for reaching Americans. As much as leagues and media companies have been rushing to jump onboard the bandwagon of streaming sports events, whenever streaming numbers for events also airing on linear networks have been publicized they’ve been a small fraction of the linear audience, and even events airing exclusively on streaming have received audiences far smaller than what their leagues are used to. Back in 2020, when Amazon aired a Niners-Cardinals game on a December Saturday – the only previous time, to my immediate recollection, that the NFL had aired a non-London game exclusively on streaming – it attracted an audience of 4.8 million, hammocked by games exclusive to NFL Network that picked up audiences of 6.1 and 8.4 million. To be sure, becoming the consistent, weekly home to Thursday Night Football, including games involving popular, valuable, relevant teams, would help Amazon achieve better ratings, but at best they would be in the neighborhood of those NFLN-exclusive games on Saturdays and Thursdays, approaching but almost certainly not passing 9 million, let alone coming close to 12.5 million; even executives within the league itself suggested the expectation shouldn’t be more than 7 or 8 million. Outside of Amazon’s own offices, the question wasn’t whether Amazon’s sky-high guarantees would turn out to be folly if not outright scamming advertisers, it was by how much.

But whatever it was Amazon did or had on its side that no one else was taking into account, be it heavily advertising TNF on anything associated with them, having an established subscriber base, or just having viewership on mobile devices count towards their Nielsen-rated numbers when it counts for no one else, it paid off, in a way that, as Amazon executives would have you think, exceeded even their own expectations. When the numbers finally came in for Amazon’s season-opening game between the Chargers and Chiefs, it clocked in at a whopping 13 million viewers – a number that included viewing on local TV stations in the teams’ respective markets, but even for the most popular teams that shouldn’t ever exceed 1.5 million for any game. (The numbers have fallen below the initial advertiser guarantees in the subsequent weeks, but have remained above 11 million.) It was a jaw-dropping number that hit the sports media Twitterverse like an atom bomb – and could turn out to be a turning point for sports on TV more generally. 

Read moreHow Thursday Night Football on Amazon Might Be Putting the Final Nail in the Coffin of the Regional Sports Network Market

How the Rise of Superconferences is Killing the Soul of College Football

Thursday, June 30, 2022 may go down as the day college football as many fans knew it officially died, as that was the day the Big Ten stunned the college football world, as the addition of USC and UCLA to the conference went from being reported by various reporters, initially with the clarification that it wasn’t a done deal, to being officially announced in the space of a few hours. It’s easy to see the move as a desperation bid by the Big Ten in response to the SEC poaching Texas and Oklahoma a year earlier, which created the first sixteen-team “superconference” in college football, crippled the Big 12 and left them in a liminal state where they’re likely to be seen as only barely a power conference at best, and threatened to create a gap between the SEC and other conferences that might be insurmountable. None of the other schools in the Big 12 could bring nearly as much of a brand name or fanbase to any of the other conferences to even be worth splitting the pie more ways, let alone make up the gap to the SEC, and the Pac-12 and ACC seemed to be cohesive enough conferences, with strong relationships between their member institutions, as to be off-limits to be poached by the Big Ten or each other.

Read moreHow the Rise of Superconferences is Killing the Soul of College Football

Is MLS’ Deal with Apple TV the Future of Sports?

Three years ago, back in the Before Times, SportsBusiness Journal reported that Major League Soccer had opted to do something rather eyebrow-raising. MLS had told its existing and future teams not to sell local broadcast rights beyond 2022 when its national TV deals were set to expire, in hopes of maximizing the value the league could offer to potential media partners. With both national and local TV revenue falling short of other soccer or American professional sports leagues, this represented a big gamble to try and maximize the league’s media revenue going forward, but Awful Announcing observed that it carried a big risk of backfiring regardless of whether or not it was successful. It would almost assuredly only work if MLS reached a deal with a streaming service, at a time when tech companies had shown little serious interest in American sports and legacy media companies were only just starting to dip their toes in the water of streaming, and most companies would likely balk at taking on both national and local MLS rights; by not being able to sell local rights to the most valuable teams separately those teams’ rights would be undervalued, and with them, potentially local MLS rights as a whole; but on the flip side, if MLS didn’t sell local rights to anyone, all the teams would be stuck with what the state of the local rights market, and of local MLS TV ratings, would be in 2022, for better and worse.

In the end, though, MLS’ gamble paid off brilliantly – and in a way that could forge a path for other leagues going forward. Two weeks ago MLS announced a 10-year agreement with Apple unlike any other in American sports. While Apple is guaranteeing MLS $250 million a year, and will have the rights to show some games for free and on Apple TV+, the core of the deal is a partnership MLS and Apple are entering into to create a new streaming service, accessible through the Apple TV app, with rights to every single MLS game, across the country and around the world, whether in- or out-of-market. MLS will produce coverage of every game with commentary in English and Spanish (and French for Canadian teams) or from each team’s local radio broadcast. MLS still hopes to reach an agreement with a linear TV partner(s), but any such games would be simulcast with Apple, not exclusive, and in a “letter to fans” from Commissioner Don Garber, it’s indicated that any such agreement would only be for the “early years” of the partnership, meaning if streaming of live sports was sufficiently mainstream down the line, MLS could yet abandon linear TV entirely. 

Read moreIs MLS’ Deal with Apple TV the Future of Sports?

Beijing 2022 Olympics Ratings Roundup

I can’t believe I’m doing this again. I set a goal for me to actually do something productive that might actually make me some money this year, and had a bunch of projects lined up to do over the next few months, and I allowed myself to get sucked in to something that could chew up a lot of time for not much reward. To make matters worse I’m doing it in Google Sheets in the hopes I might be able to share the spreadsheet directly at some point for people to explore the charts on their own, but at the moment it just means it’s a massive memory hog.

But hey, ShowBuzz Daily seems to be more comprehensive than any source I used when doing this in the past, recording viewers and 18-49 ratings for the top 150 original cable programs of each day in the demo, deeper than any source I’ve used in the past that wasn’t restricted to certain networks, as well as viewers, 18-49 viewers, and household ratings for any event at any time on any network (except for ESPNU and a few other, quirky networks), giving me timelier and more complete coverage of daytime sports events on broadcast networks than I’ve ever had before. It’s already had one shutdown scare, but it at least allows me to provide more comprehensive Olympics ratings coverage than the last time I tried this.

Whether or not these numbers are meaningful outside of NBC is another question. In both Tokyo and Beijing NBC opted to have USA present round-the-clock 24/7 coverage, not even interrupted by WWE Monday Night Raw in the case of Beijing (but occasionally interrupted by Premier League coverage). This means there aren’t necessarily any logical “windows” to report ratings for, and how NBC actually did divide the windows for ratings purposes doesn’t necessarily make any sense. NBC had USA’s primetime window align with NBC’s primetime window, and the late-night “Prime Plus” window align with local news and “Prime Plus” on NBC, even if the resulting cutoffs were in the middle of live event coverage. I can sort of see the logic behind that, and I can even see the logic of setting a hard cutoff at 8 AM ET, usually the time when a hockey game would be starting, but the window starting at that time would usually go for six hours, meaning it would be split roughly evenly between live coverage and a few hours of delayed re-airs. I don’t see how that makes sense even from a selling-to-advertisers perspective; few would be watching consistently for that long, and a live hockey game is likely to draw a different audience from taped coverage.

Regardless, this is my attempt to make sense of what was reported on ShowBuzz Daily. This is a list of every window reported there with viewership of over 500,000. Click here to learn more about how to read the charts, but note that that page is now woefully outdated. 

Read moreBeijing 2022 Olympics Ratings Roundup

Thoughts on @Ourand_SBJ’s Predictions for Sports Media in 2022

As we approach the end of the year we see the arrival of the season for reflecting on the past and predicting the future, and in the sports media business there’s always something going on that make the business of predictions exciting; whenever big rights deals come up for renewal the possibilities seem endless for what might happen, and as the legacy television industry struggles to come to terms with the advent of cord-cutting moves taken now will have ramifications for decades to come. John Ourand’s annual prediction column in the Sports Business Journal is generally good for a mix of bold predictions, assessment of the current landscape, and surprisingly odd analysis for someone so well-connected. Last year’s column, though, proved to be more spot-on than I thought at the time, especially with regard to the NFL’s rights renewal and the shutdown of NBCSN, so it can’t be dismissed out of hand. With that in mind, here’s my take on Ourand’s predictions for 2022:

Read moreThoughts on @Ourand_SBJ’s Predictions for Sports Media in 2022

What Does the WarnerMedia-Discovery Merger Mean for Sports (At Least Stateside)?

Earlier this month AT&T announced it was ending its involvement in the media business after only three years from the closure of its merger with Time Warner. The assets now known as WarnerMedia would be merged with Discovery to form a new entity with no AT&T ownership and with Discovery head David Zaslav in charge of the merged company, which might sound an awful lot like Discovery buying WarnerMedia (and AT&T would get plenty of compensation in the form of cash and absorption of debt obligations, albeit amounting to pennies on the dollar from the original Time Warner acquisition), except AT&T shareholders would own nearly three-quarters of the new company. WarnerMedia’s diverse portfolio of adult and children’s entertainment networks, plus news networks and sports content, premium cable, and the HBO Max service launched under AT&T, would now be joining forces with Discovery’s documentary, reality, and other nonfiction programming.

A number of analysts in the aftermath suggested this would be a “game changer” for sports with “one more bidder entering the market” for sports rights, with one analyst claiming it would have “profound implications” as the new company could create a “must-have sports streaming service”, but considering that WarnerMedia already had high-profile sports rights and Discovery didn’t have any US sports rights whatsoever, nor does either company have a broadcast network presence, it’s hard to see how the new company is any more of a factor in sports rights negotiations than WarnerMedia already was. To be sure, before this year it had been a long time since Turner had been much of a factor in trying to acquire rights they didn’t already own and that were in any way competitive, the main exception being a run with the UEFA Champions League that only ended up lasting a year and a half and didn’t particularly impress soccer fans.

Then sports media watchers were blindsided when Turner came seemingly out of nowhere to take the half of the NHL package Disney hadn’t locked up, effectively saving the league from having to take significantly less money than they were hoping for after NBC was lukewarm at best to continuing their involvement, Fox set a ceiling on how much they would pay, and CBS wasn’t interested at all. The rights could be said to have fallen into Turner’s lap, but it’s still impressive that Turner was able to pay pretty close to what the NHL was looking for and beat out all other comers (including the possibility that Disney might have simply taken the whole package), and as incredible as it was that ESPN, the outfit more responsible than any other for keeping two Stanley Cup Final games on cable over the past two decades, would be the outfit to finally put every Final game on broadcast, it was even more incredible to find out that the other three Finals over the course of the deal would air entirely on cable, after the great care NBC took in the latter portion of their relationship to ensure NBCSN wouldn’t air a Game 4 where the Cup could be awarded. Zaslav’s comments that he’d been working on the merger for months before word got out (and had been badgering AT&T about a deal pretty much from the instant the Time Warner merger was completed) could serve as fuel for speculation that he was the driving force behind the NHL deal all along, and suggests that if the only impact a WarnerMedia-Discovery merger has on the former company’s sports operation is an infusion of resources (even though the merged company is probably smaller than AT&T as a whole during the WarnerMedia era), that’s still going to be enough to shake up the sports landscape.

But there aren’t a whole lot of high-value rights left. MLS rights, currently shared by ESPN and Fox, expire in 2022, but the value of those rights are a shadow of even the NHL. The NBA is the only one of the traditional four major sports that hasn’t locked up new rights deals in the past few months and Turner will be playing defense there when those rights come up by 2025. The NFL hasn’t settled the future of NFL Sunday Ticket, and SportsBusiness Daily’s John Ourand thinks DiscoverWarnerMedia might become a player there, but it feels like an odd fit without holding any exclusive or linear rights.

With ESPN picking up CBS’ SEC contract, there aren’t any major college conference rights up for renewal before 2024, when the Big Ten and Pac-12’s deals expire, with the Big 12 and Big East following suit the following year; the NCAA’s deal with ESPN for less-prominent sports expires then as well, and those deals could be an opportunity for DiscoverWarnerMedia to deepen their relationship with college sports and the NCAA (whose web site they already run) and avoid simply parachuting in for March Madness. But both ESPN and especially Fox are likely to spend profusely to defend their Big Ten rights, and the Pac-12 right now is in a place where they’re in danger of becoming the clear fifth conference of the Power 5, while the Big 12 has the least valuable demographics of the Power 5 and the Big East has no football and hasn’t moved the needle for FS1 as much as they thought it would. The College Football Playoff, whose current deals run through the 2025 season, is likely to come up at this point as well, but I doubt they have much interest in continuing to be a cable-only enterprise given their popularity and the direction media is headed, and they certainly won’t go with an outfit without any other college football rights (covers ears and sings loudly to drown out people bringing up the BCS on Fox). That’s not even getting into the notion of a large-scale shakeup of college football that might come mid-decade (one that, depending on the players involved, could yet see DiscoverWarnerMedia benefit).

NASCAR comes up for renewal in 2024 as well, but Turner seemed like an odd relic last time they had those rights with a handful of early-summer races, both they and ESPN pretty much didn’t want anything to do with the sport anymore by the time that deal ended, and NASCAR ratings didn’t finish crashing through the floor until a few years into the Fox/NBC era. On the other hand, the shutdown of NBCSN means NBC could be vulnerable to a concerted effort from a determined rival, which, given their portion of the schedule coincides with football season, would mean either Turner or ESPN. Everything else that could move the needle, including the World Cup, SEC, and ACC, are all locked up for the rest of the decade, and anything else that is coming up in that time isn’t likely to move the needle very much.

What Discovery does bring to the table that might make an impact on WarnerMedia’s sports operations is their Eurosport network, and a lot of the excitement surrounding the merger concerns the possibility of blending the Turner networks’ sports rights with Eurosport’s to form an unbeatable sports streaming service. But Eurosport’s slate of rights is singularly unimpressive, at least from an American standpoint, which might be surprising given its prominence; in fact Turner’s rights slate might benefit Eurosport more than the other way around. (Also, the opportunities for synergy are limited given Eurosport broadcasts in each of Europe’s many languages.) What rights Eurosport does have that would be relevant to Americans – the Olympics and PGA Tour – are among the rights already locked up stateside into the next decade (and Turner’s efforts to pick up PGA Tour rights were simply embarrassing, talking about converting one of their networks into a duplicate of what NBC already had), and everything else is a hodgepodge of rights.

It has plenty of soccer, but not much of it applies throughout its territory (in fact very little applies outside Scandinavia and Romania) and what does apply tends to be decidedly lower-tier; they technically have domestic rights to the German Bundesliga (extending to much of Central and Eastern Europe) but resold those rights (as well as those in Austria and Switzerland) to DAZN (which led to DAZN launching German linear channels only reluctantly and while griping about how they shouldn’t be necessary, once again overlooking the true value of linear television). Both outlets would likely be interested in acquiring Premier League rights for as many territories as possible, but that seems to be NBC’s top priority now that Sky Sports, the outlet arguably responsible for the Premier League’s very existence, is a corporate sibling. Eurosport also has rights to the three Grand Tours of bicycle racing, and the Tour de France might be up for the taking with NBCSN shutting down, but it’s not like being on TNT or TBS is actually any different than being on USA.

What stands out to me, looking at Eurosport’s slate of rights from the perspective of the Turner networks, is tennis. Eurosport has pan-European rights to the French and US Opens (excluding rights to the US Open in the UK and Ireland, where Amazon holds rights), to the Australian Open in the vast majority if not all of Europe, and Wimbledon in a majority of countries they serve. They also hold rights to the ATP Tour in France, Russia, Scandinavia, Romania, and Hungary, and the WTA Tour in Denmark and Russia. In the United States, rights to most events outside the Grand Slams are held exclusively by Tennis Channel, which just locked up a deal to become the exclusive home of ATP Tour events, including the most prominent events in North America, for an indeterminate amount of time, though the similar deal with the WTA expires after 2023. Tennis Channel is also the main rightsholder at the French Open, with ESPN holding rights to the other three Grand Slams, though I haven’t seen anything indicating that they’ve reached an agreement with the Australian Open extending past 2021. Their deal with Wimbledon runs through 2023, while the US Open deal runs through 2025; Tennis Channel’s deal with the French Open runs through 2023, with NBC’s deal ending the following year. DiscoverWarnerMedia could be a surprisingly motivated bidder for rights to each of the four Grand Slams, at minimum, over the next four years. Anything else would likely require a relationship with Tennis Channel, and Sinclair Broadcast Group likely doesn’t see a reason to part with it (and certainly not to have the whole company being acquired if it means they don’t get to spread conservative propaganda on their broadcast stations anymore, and DiscoverWarnerMedia likely doesn’t have much stomach for running broadcast stations anyway). Still, this might be the biggest immediate impact of the merger.

There’s one more wrinkle to consider here, albeit one that’s only incidentally related to the merger itself. Though AT&T’s regional sports networks were acquired through the purchase of DirecTV, after the Time Warner merger they were placed in the same part of WarnerMedia as Turner Sports in the News and Sports division under Jeff Zucker, actually separate from the rest of the TBS and TNT networks in the Studios and Networks division. I haven’t seen any mention of the RSNs in any discussions of the deal, and there were rumors for a while that not all of the WB Games division would make the transition to the new company so it’s not a sure thing the RSNs will, but I would normally assume the RSNs will in fact make the transition. Certainly the RSNs were long subject to rumors that AT&T was hoping to unload them in some way, arguably predating the AT&T-DirecTV merger but shifting into overdrive as the RSN market seemingly collapsed, with the prospect of a reunion with their former Fox Sports Net bretheren at Sinclair being particularly floated. With the NHL deal, though, WarnerMedia now has national rights to each of the three sports that make up the backbone of most RSNs, and while ideally you’d want a larger group than just four RSNs (not counting the separate feeds for Utah and Nevada) for this, there’s an opportunity to create some form of synergy between the RSNs and the national outlets, if Zaslav wants it. At the very least, if the RSNs aren’t part of AT&T anymore they’ll probably need a change of name.

In short, there are a lot of obstacles to a combined Discovery-WarnerMedia being a bigger player in sports rights than either company alone, not the least of them being that there isn’t a single package of rights held by both Turner and Eurosport as it stands, other than Russia-specific rights to the NHL, which means there’s not a lot it can do at the moment to create a streaming service that would be fundamentally the same on both sides of the Atlantic. The ability to offer international rights in Europe would certainly help in WarnerMedia’s negotiations with sports leagues, but the entities that would be most interested in that are either locked up for the next decade, already with Turner, or have limited appeal, and Eurosport has shown little interest in the European leagues and competitions that would be interested in a stateside presence, so it seems doubtful the American sports consumer would notice much of a difference. Tennis is probably the only sport where joining forces with Eurosport would pay dividends for the Turner networks in the short term, but even there the impact is likely to be limited. So while this merger is likely to have a significant impact on rights to American sports leagues in Europe, could impact stateside rights to tennis and cycling, and gives both entities an infusion of cash and the ability to bid for trans-Atlantic rights to fuel the pursuit of more sports rights, hyperbolic claims about its impact on the sports landscape are probably unwarranted in the short term; if anything, a good chunk of the impact may have already happened. Still, it’ll be worth keeping a close eye on NBA rights negotiations in the next few years if the deal gets approved; to the extent DiscoverWarnerMedia can launch a trans-Atlantic streaming service, NBA rights will probably have to be the linchpin for it.

A Blast from the Past that will Shape the Future: What Does the NHL’s Return to ESPN Mean for the Future of Live Sports Video?

In 2007, after ESPN had screwed over Fox (who had reportedly been thinking of putting the entire Stanley Cup Final on broadcast television) in taking control of the entire NHL broadcast contract and proceeded to barely promote it at all (especially after taking over the NBA contract a few years later) and bump it to ESPN2 if just about anything and everything could be put on ESPN ahead of it, most infamously poker, then turned down a $60 million option to extend the contract in the wake of the lockout leaving the league to turn with their tail between their legs to the outfit then known as the Outdoor Life Network, then made NHL highlights virtually persona non grata on SportsCenter to the consternation of hockey fans who felt ESPN, then at the seeming height of their monopolistic power, was sticking it to any league or entity that didn’t bother to sign a contract with them… if you told hockey fans that ESPN would end up being the entity responsible for putting every game of the Stanley Cup Final on American broadcast television, would they have believed you in a million years?

But indeed, that’s what will happen in four out of the seven years, including (presumably) next year, of ESPN’s new agreement with the NHL announced Wednesday, a deal that will reportedly pay the NHL $400 million a year, close to twice what NBC was paying for only half the national television contract. Perhaps no other recent sports rights deal better captures the shifts in the video (it seems gauche to call it “TV”) business in recent years, and it’s hard to think of one that will have more of an impact (the reported move of Thursday Night Football to largely being exclusive to Amazon feels like more of a paradigm shift but hasn’t been announced yet and may have less relevance to defining the role of linear television going forward). In something that would have been unthinkable, certainly for ESPN, maybe five years ago, this appears to be a deal largely about ABC and ESPN+, with linear ESPN largely an afterthought. 

Read moreA Blast from the Past that will Shape the Future: What Does the NHL’s Return to ESPN Mean for the Future of Live Sports Video?

Thoughts on @Ourand_SBJ’s Predictions for Sports Media in 2021

As we approach the end of the year we see the arrival of the season for reflecting on the past and predicting the future, and in the sports media business there’s always something going on that make the business of predictions exciting; whenever big rights deals come up for renewal the possibilities seem endless for what might happen, and as the legacy television industry struggles to come to terms with the advent of cord-cutting moves taken now will have ramifications for decades to come. John Ourand’s annual prediction column in the Sports Business Journal is generally good for a mix of bold predictions, assessment of the current landscape, and surprisingly odd analysis for someone so well-connected. I’ve dedicated entire tweet threads to his column in the past, but I haven’t entirely abandoned the notion raised way back when I started my Tweeter that anything that took up multiple tweets would go in a blog post instead, so here’s my take on Ourand’s predictions for 2021:

Read moreThoughts on @Ourand_SBJ’s Predictions for Sports Media in 2021

Handicapping the Thursday Night Football race (again)

Last week, John Ourand reported in SportsBusiness Journal about the state of the NFL’s ongoing contract renegotiations with networks. The league had hoped to have new deals in place before the start of the upcoming season, but the coronavirus pandemic has placed that on hold; however, things seem to be shaping up to mostly continue the status quo. CBS wants to keep its Sunday afternoon package, NBC wants to keep Sunday Night Football, Fox wants to keep its own package and specifically stating it wants to “keep an NFC-focused package”, presumably in contrast to the idea the league has floated in the past of decoupling the Sunday afternoon packages from the conferences. Ourand described ESPN as the wild card, as they have long groused about paying nearly twice as much as the broadcast networks for games but getting a weak package; ESPN argues that retransmission consent has leveled the playing field between broadcast and cable, and if they’re going to spend so much money they should be getting better games, though in contrast to what was reported in 2017, ESPN seems to be focusing more on upgrading its current package than dropping out or even reducing the amount it pays relative to the other networks. As has been previously reported, ESPN also wants to return the NFL to ABC and rejoin the Super Bowl rotation.

However, Ourand also noted that Fox said little about Thursday Night Football and characterized that as the likeliest package to change hands, and that became the biggest headline in other places‘ reporting on Ourand’s article.

Read moreHandicapping the Thursday Night Football race (again)

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.