The NFL Flaunts Its Tremendous Leverage in New Thursday Night Football Deal

Michael Schneider
Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (93) runs in pursuit as he is blocked by Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long (75) and center Will Montgomery (64) during a week 1 NFL preseason football game in Chicago, Illinois on Thursday, August 13, 2015. The Bears defeated the Dolphins 27-10. (AP Photo/Scott Boehm)
Scott Boehm/AP Photo

The NFL is often called “the greatest reality show on TV,” and that’s certainly true from a ratings perspective.

But here’s the real reality: Pro football always wins.

NBC and CBS already spend more than $1 billion a year on their Sunday NFL packages. Now, in a new additional deal, both networks will pay another $225 million next year to each air five Thursday Night Football games (all of which will be simulcast on the NFL Network).

That’s not all. Both networks will also additionally be required to pay for and produce four additional games each that will only be seen on NFL Network. That brings the grand total of 18 Thursday games that the NFL Network will be able to run or simulcast without having to spend anything on production.

And what’s more, neither CBS nor NBC gets streaming rights to the games. The NFL is still negotiating a separate digital deal, which will bring in more big bucks to the league—while potentially eating into CBS’ and NBC’s viewership.

“The NFL wields indisputable power,” says one insider. “And has amazing chutzpah.”

CBS previously paid $300 million as the sole broadcast partner of Thursday Night Football with the NFL Network. The NFL could have made even more money by selling completely exclusive rights to the Thursday package, but NFL Network remains a priority for the league. Also, by adding another network partner plus a streaming outlet, in addition to the carriage fees the NFL gets from satellite and cable operators to carry the channel, the league is getting paid handsomely from multiple sources.

“Our mission when we first put games on Thursday nights in 2006 was to work strategically to make Thursdays a night for NFL football in the mold of what Monday and Sunday nights mean to millions of fans across the country,” Robert Kraft, Chairman of the NFL’s Broadcast Committee, said in a statement announcing the deal. “We’ve made great strides since that point, and growing the base of games with CBS, now with NBC, and soon with digital streaming will only help us solidify this night in the consciousness of NFL fans here and globally.”

In other words, it’s a win-win-win for the NFL, and a necessary get for CBS and NBC—even though CBS CEO Leslie Moonves admitted to the Wall Street Journal that its previous Thursday Night Football deals had not been profitable.

In an age of delayed viewing and fractionalized audiences, the NFL remains one of the few sure things in primetime.

NBC’s Sunday Night Football gives it a huge advantage in fall primetime ratings, and over the past two years CBS has had the added cushion of Thursday Night Football games to pad its season-to-date average. (This year, the Eye network also boasts Super Bowl 50.)

The Thursday games have also helped CBS in promoting its fall launches. And with its Thursday night lineup not premiering until the end of October, that has allowed the network to either air fewer repeats, or use those repeats (of shows like powerhouse comedy The Big Bang Theory) strategically elsewhere.

Now that CBS has to share Thursday Night Football with NBC, both rivals will now essentially harbor the same advantage when it comes to the night’s season average. It also means rivals ABC and Fox will now have to contend with going up against 10 NFL broadcast games instead of last year’s 8.

CBS’ will air the first part of the Thursday Night Football deal (although actual scheduling has not yet been announced). Its coverage shrinks down to 5 games, but that may allow the network to return to its regular schedule on the night (including The Big Bang Theory) earlier than the past two years.

NBC’s part of the deal picks up the week before Thanksgiving—which means the network will have to wrap its Thursday series (which may still include The Blacklist, unless that show switches nights) by mid-November. That’s convenient, and gives NBC two primetime NFL games (Sunday and Thursday) heading into the holidays. Thursday is a big night for advertising, and NBC will air those games right when movie studios and retailers are making their big holiday push.

On the other side, it’s unclear how stellar those matchups will be that late in the season for NBC, and the Peacock network will also have to figure out where to relocate Hairspray Live, as its previous live musical events have aired on a Thursday after Thanksgiving.