How Much is ‘Thursday Night Football’ Worth? It All Depends Who’s Paying

Analysis: Bad match-ups? Check. Too much football? Check. But the NFL is not-so-subtly using its Thursday-night games to build a new model that bridges old and new media players

Broncos Colts Thursday Night Football
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Critics of the NFL’s increasingly complex presentation of “Thursday Night Football” say they haven’t seen a good game in the series in a month of Sundays. That won’t keep the league from scoring top dollar from several companies that still want to show those mid-week match-ups.

The big question: How much should the NFL really get from each? The distribution of “TNF” has become so fragmented and so burdensome – it is split among two broadcast networks and a SVOD service – that it’s hard to imagine current TV rights-holders CBS and NBC eager to pay more than they already do. With the most recent contract for “TNF” over, Fox Sports is also believed to be in the mix to win the event, according to people familiar with the situation. CBS Sports, Fox Sports and NBC Sports all declined to comment.

To be sure, there’s good reason to run“TNF.” It brings in ratings and ad dollars that cannot be matched by regular TV fare. And yet, the NFL’s willingness to split rights for the games among multiple parties could prove frustrating.

“In a really fragmented media rights environment, you have to be really mindful about how does it deliver value to your shareholders,” says David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.  “It can’t just be about branding and owning the nights. How else can they monetize their rights?”

For those who don’t know the figures, a quick recap: 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. Along with those deals comes the chance to air the Super Bowl in a three-year rotation. On top of that, CBS and NBC were each paying the NFL $225 million per year for the rights to simulcast four games of “Thursday Night Football” along with the NFL Network,  part of a two-year deal that just expired. Amazon is believed to have paid the league $50 million for a year of rights to stream the broadcasters’ version of “TNF,” another contract that just ran its course.

Some people might argue “Thursday Night Football” isn’t worth what people have been paying for it, and may even suggest the show has eroded the value of the NFL’s other properties. It’s no secret the Thursday-night  match-ups haven’t been on par with their weekend counterparts. “It dilutes the inventory that’s available on Sunday and Monday,” says Charles Coplin, an independent producer and professor of sports communication at Boston’s Emerson College, who previously served as vice president of programming at NFL Network. ESPN has a separate deal with the NFL to air “Monday Night Football.”

And that’s not all. Media buyers have suggested in recent seasons that the availability of “TNF” and other new NFL extensions – the occasional game that streams on YouTube – has created a glut of football inventory that advertisers are leveraging to cadge lower pricing when they can. The announcement Thursday of a revival of an eight-team XFL won’t help matters.

Not too long ago, the networks sold out ad inventory the Super Bowl by mid-autumn. For the past several years, the process has been much slower. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke earlier this week said the company’s February 4 broadcast of Super Bowl LII was “essentially sold out” – which could mean the network has more slots to turn. In 2016 and 2017, neither CBS nor Fox confirmed sell out status.  Ad buyers say clients can buy more football earlier in the season at cheaper prices rather than coughing up as much as $5 million dollars for a single spot in an early February Big Game.

NBC and CBS might be wary of ponying up more coin for the property. Simply put, “TNF” doesn’t work the same way for each network. CBS airs four games earlier in the season, delaying the launch of its highly rated Thursday-night schedule. NBC, on the other hand, gets to air games closer to the holiday season – and uses that fact to charge advertisers higher prices.

Consider the disparity in the average price of an ad in each network’s four-game package. The cost of a 30-second ad in NBC’s “Thursday Night Football” rose 3.7% over the previous season, according to Variety’s annual look at primetime commercial prices, to $524,047. But the average price of a 30-second spot dipped 6.4% for CBS’ Thursday-night broadcasts, to $496,276.

Capturing “Thursday Night Football” could mean more for Fox. The broadcast network is expected to place more emphasis on live programming and sports broadcasts after its parent company, 21st Century Fox sells the bulk of its assets to Walt Disney Co. Having more NFL to offer would serve Fox well: It would fill a night’s worth of programming on the company’s broadcast network and spur more “shoulder” programs on counterpart Fox Sports 1.

Could the NFL simply give the property over to a digital player?  Anything is possible in these frenzied days of streaming video, but consider the fact that none of the big digital-media companies – Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix – have the mechanics in place to televise live sports. They have no first-string announcers, no production crew skilled at covering the games, no cadre of sideline reporters. There would have to be a significant investment in infrastructure if those companies wanted to take over the entire enterprise. And there’s still no greater media tool to assemble a giant audience than a broadcast network. Perhaps giving the streaming rights back to the networks represents a way to get them to pay a higher fee in the next contract.

That seems unlikely. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, “Thursday Night Football” has changed. It once served as a means for the NFL to get more attention for its cable network. Simulcasting the Thursday games with CBS, then both CBS and NBC, meant putting a big spotlight on cable property that needed more attention – and new pressure on cable and satellite distributors who carried it.

These days, however, “TNF” is something entirely different. It’s a tool the NFL is using to explore how to link to new-media players. By streaming with Twitter one season, Amazon the next, the league is feeling out how to proceed at a time when new digital giants seem likely to tread heavily over the landscape.

“If you’re a broadcaster, you are kind of trying to maintain the status quo. “If you are a digital guy, you are trying to be an early adapter into a new revenue stream and a new content model,” says Coplin. “The NFL wins because they get to pick.”

Fans of “Thursday Night Football” thought they were tuning in for a good sports match. Turns out the show is a drama.