The chief financial officer of the company said Tuesday that if forced to make a decision about whether to carry just Sunday-afternoon football games or “Thursday Night Football,” Fox would opt for the Sunday package. The NFL and its media partners — Fox, ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal and Walt Disney — have been in ongoing talks in recent months about renewing football rights packages. The league’s current rights deal with Disney’s ESPN lapses after the 2021 season, while its contracts with the remaining three last through 2022.
“If there is a choice between the two,” said Steve Tomsic, Fox Corp.’s CFO, speaking to investors at a conference organized by UBS, Fox’s Sunday package “is absolutely core to our hearts.” He added: “The heritage of the company was built on Sunday afternoon football,” a reference to founder Rupert Murdoch’s decision in 1993 to gain momentum for his still-fledgling Fox broadcast network by paying a whopping $1.6 billion for the rights to Sunday NFL games previously held by CBS.
Football rights have gone up significantly since then, and it’s tough to envision Fox being willing to pay over-the-top dollars for two different football programs at this moment in the media business. Simply put, current expectations hold that NFL prices could rise as much as 50% to 80% in the next round of talks.
CBS, NBC and Fox are believed to be paying a combined $3.1 billion per year for Sunday games, compared to $1.94 billion a year under the previous contract. ESPN’s rights to broadcast “Monday Night Football” are believed to cost around $1.9 billion per year, compared to $1.1 billion paid in the previous contract. Fox struck a separate deal to broadcast “Thursday Night Football” for five years starting in the fall of 2019, a contract believed to be worth more than $650 million per year.
As more consumers migrate to streaming venues, many traditional media companies are trying to stockpile cash to fuel new lines of content. ViacomCBS recently agreed to part ways with both its CNET tech-media unit and its Simon & Schuster book-publishing operation, a move that company CEO Bob Bakish on Tuesday said had secured more than $2 billion in cash it could use to create new content for streaming audiences, while maintaining its dividend and paying off debt.
The NFL’s Thursday-night package has proven to be a challenge for several media companies. While “Thursday Night Football” draws sizable viewership, the games were difficult to monetize for both CBS and NBC, which previously aired the matches. And Fox was widely seen as having overpaid for the property in 2018, when it committed $3.25 billion for it over five years. If the price for Fox’s Sunday games rises significantly, Fox may have to reconsider its Thursday-night affiliation. What’s more, “Thursday Night Football” is simulcast on the NFL Network and streams via Amazon, meaning Fox has to pay top dollar for a property that it not exclusive.
There has been speculation that the NFL hoped to conclude negotiations with all of its media partners by November, but the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on its current football season have absorbed executives’ attention, When asked Tuesday if he knew when rights talks would conclude, Tomsic responded: “Hard to put a time frame on it.”