‘Thursday Night Football,’ ‘Monday Night Football’ Could Change Networks in TV’s NFL Rights Scramble

Green Bay Packers Redskins NFL Playoff
AP Photo/Nick Wass

There’s more than a bunch of football games at stake as the National Football League gets set to kick off its 2020 season Thursday night.

Behind the scenes, four of the nation’s biggest media companies are eager to try and keep NFL football on their networks for years to come – and doing so may not be easy. The league’s current rights deal with Walt Disney’s ESPN lapses after the 2021 season, while its contracts with ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal and Fox Corp. last through 2022. Two people familiar with parts of current talks suggest all parties would like to see new agreements struck by early November, but acknowledge that discussions could continue well beyond that.

Prices for new rights packages could rise as much as 50% to 80%, one of these people estimates, and the prospect of inflation has spurred several new ideas at the networks. Disney could suggest moving “Monday Night Football” to ABC from ESPN, two of these people said, placing that sports mainstay back on a broadcast network for the first time since 2005. Meanwhile, “Thursday Night Football,” which currently airs on the Fox broadcast network, could move to another perch, depending on overall costs and terms, these people said.

The NFL did not respond to queries seeking comment. ESPN, which manages sports broadcasts for Disney, declined to make executives available for comment, as did CBS Sports, NBC Sports and Fox Sports. None of these maneuvers are certain to happen, according to people familiar with discussions, but have been raised in negotiations.

Billions of dollars are stake for all involved. NFL rights are already costly. The most recent agreements with CBS, NBC and Fox went into effect in 2013 and last for nine years. The three 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.

Even with swelling price tags, the networks can’t do without the sport. Live NFL broadcasts generate TV’s biggest consistent audiences and the medium’s highest ad prices. In 2019, the average cost of a 30-second ad on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was $608,625, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. The equivalent on Fox’s “Thursday Night Football” came to $496,232, with the average 30-second spot nearly $461,345 for Fox’s Sunday afternoon games; nearly $353,911 for CBS’ Sunday football games; and nearly $277,605 for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

“That sport is obviously important,” said ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish, speaking to investors this morning. Despite a new array of digital companies that may vie for rights, he said, the NFL still sees value in the broad distribution and high production values the broadcast networks provide.

People familiar with the talks expect Disney to make some aggressive proposals, including asking to join the Super Bowl rotation that currently involves NBC, CBS and Fox, if the Monday-night games were to return to ABC. One of the people familiar with discussions says Disney sees “Monday Night Football” as a means to spur new retransmission revenue from affiliates – a growth area for media companies in recent years.

The move could create some challenges for ESPN, which would lose one of its marquee properties. ESPN charges one of the industry’s highest programming fees, and distributors like Charter Communications and Comcast Corp. could balk at such terms without an NFL showcase on the sports network.

One of the people familiar with talks suggests parties may explore the idea of trying to place “Thursday Night Football” on ESPN, but notes such a move would not be a fait accompli. While the Thursday-night games draw sizable viewership, they 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 want to reconsider its Thursday-night affiliation. What’s more, “Thursday Night Football” is simulcast on the NFL Network and streams via Amazon, which could tamp down its luster when being considered by ESPN’s affiliates.

The NFL will also likely have to contend with the question of what to do with the package of regional Sunday games it places on AT&T’s DirecTV for viewers who can’t otherwise gain access to them. DirecTV has been losing viewers and reports have suggested AT&T is interested in selling the satellite distributor to offset its corporate debt load. The league’s deal with DirecTV also expires after the 2022 season. AT&T declined to comment.