As the NFL staggers to the end of a trying regular season, more than just the potential lift from the playoffs lies ahead in the new year. The league will also look to cement its 2018 TV and streaming plans for Thursday Night Football.
According to a report in Sports Business Daily, the NFL is open to significant changes being made to the Thursday night slot, which has been a whipping post for fans, team execs and league officials even as it generates significant revenue and tune-in. In terms of programming and distribution, the night functions as something of a sandbox, with videogame-style camera angles, “color rush” uniforms and streaming deals with Twitter and Amazon over the past two seasons.
One major turning point, the SBD report notes, could be the entry of a digital player buying all rights. Instead of parceling out streaming separately, the league is encouraging bids that encompass both linear TV and streaming. One novel scenario that could result is a deep-pocketed tech company like Amazon or YouTube selling back TV rights to local affiliates.
Bids will need to be submitted in early January and a decision will likely be finalized before the Super Bowl is played on Feb. 4. The league has done a series of one-year deals for Thursdays, unlike the longer-term arrangements for most other rights. Currently, CBS and NBC share in an overall $450 million package, simulcasting with the NFL Network.
Newly motivated bidders could include Fox, which will have a greater need for sports on its broadcast schedule after it sells its studio operation to Disney.
Launched in 2014, during a rosier time when the NFL seemed nigh-invulnerable, Thursday night games have declined in the ratings in recent seasons due to a confluence of factors. The headwinds include a glut of games across the entire landscape (with weekly prime-time slots on Sunday, Monday and Thursday), mounting concerns about the effect of concussions, and of course this year’s sideshow of team protests and debate over kneeling players.
The Indianapolis Colts-Denver Broncos game on Dec. 14 drew the fewest viewers of any TNF broadcast to date–10.6 million total viewers. Overall, NBC games have plunged 21% from 2016 levels, while those carried by CBS have slipped just 4%.
One variable in the bidding is the number of games. Currently at 18, the questionable caliber of many contests has led to speculation that the slate could shrink or even migrate from regular Thursdays. Given the holidays, this month, games that are technically part of the Thursday night package have been played on Saturdays and there will be a Christmas Day matchup on Monday afternoon.