Executives at Fox Sports believe they are close to winning the rights to show the National Football League’s “Thursday Night Football” for at least the next season, a deal that would illustrate the company’s need for live sports at a time when viewership for professional football games are eroding .
The 21st Century Fox unit is bidding aggressively, and executives feel they may complete a deal with the NFL in the next few days, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesman for Fox Networks Group, the operating unit that includes Fox Sports, declined to comment. A spokesman for the NFL did not respond to a query seeking comment.
CBS and NBC paid a total of $450 million last season for the rights to air a combined package of ten games that was split among both networks. The two networks paid the same amount for the rights in the 2016-2017 season as well. CBS and NBC have indicated their interest in airing the games could wane if licensing costs rose without any new benefits, according to people familiar with the situation. Bloomberg News reported Tuesday night that Fox had submitted a bid that would be higher than the $45 million per game agreed to last season by CBS and NBC.
Whether the NFL had determined how to award rights to live-stream the games digitally was not immediately clear.
21st Century Fox has reason to try to capture the games. The company has proposed to sell the bulk of its assets – including its various TV production studios – to Walt Disney Co. in a deal valued at $52.4 billion. Fox would keep its Fox broadcast network, Fox Sports and FS1 cable network, leaving it more reliant on live sports broadcasts to draw audiences. Fox already airs NFL games on Sunday afternoons.
At the same time, NFL games aren’t the bonanza they once were. To be certain, NFL match-ups remain some of TV’s most-viewed properties, but their audience has begun to ebb over the last two seasons. Regular-season viewership for NFL games in the most recent season was off 13%, while viewership for the league’s playoff games fell between 12% and 20%, according to research from Michael Nathanson, an independent media-industry analyst. “The NFL is experiencing a structural decline in viewership, and it is going to be an issue!” Nathanson wrote in a January 29 report.
Adding the Thursday-night games will only increase Fox’s reliance on football. By Nathanson’s estimate, 40% of Fox’s gross ratings points are related to its football broadcasts.
The Thursday-night games have sparked debate. They capture a sizable audience and top dollar from advertisers, but the general consensus among TV executives is that the games have been weaker than what is shown on Sunday and on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Ad buyers say the new flight of games dilutes the TV networks’ inventory of football, allowing them to seek lower pricing and avoid some of the league’s best-known properties, including the annual Super Bowl.
The NFL originally brought the games to CBS for a two-year deal that called for them to be simulcast with the NFL Network. The league was interested in gaining new interest for its cable outlet. The NFL subsequently split the games between CBS and NBC, in a deal that played havoc with both networks’ fall schedules and gave NBC more leverage in commanding higher ad prices, because its games aired closer to the holiday season. The league further split for the games by awarding streaming rights to Twitter, then Amazon.
Sports executives believe the league is less concerned with the viability of its NFL Network, and now sees the games as means of securing tie-ups with digital-media players, who are likely to show new interest in live sports content in months and years to come. CBS, Fox and NBC are already paying the NFL a whopping $27.9 billion between 2014 and 2022 to air Sunday-afternoon games on CBS and Fox and “Sunday Night Football” on NBC. When that deal lapses, the networks and the league will certainly face an entirely new ballgame.