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NFL Strikes New Rights Pacts: Fox Cedes Thursdays to Amazon, ABC Gains Super Bowl Slot

NFL Strikes New TV Pacts: Fox
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

The NFL season ended weeks ago, but some of the media’s biggest players have been scrambling to keep professional football in the spotlight.

Under a series of critically important rights deals unveiled Thursday between the National Football League and some of the nation’s biggest media companies, “Thursday Night Football” will no longer be shown on broadcast TV and Walt Disney’s ABC will air the Super Bowl for the first time in more than 15 years. The moves come after the NFL cemented new pacts that will keep the bulk of its games under the purview of traditional media outlets through 2033, even as it expanded its reach into the new ways its fans are experiencing the game, including streaming video and gaming.

Fox, which had previously aired “Thursday,” will keep its Sunday-afternoon games, as will CBS. NBC will stick with “Sunday Night Football’ and Disney’s ESPN will extend its run on “Monday Night Football,” according to people familiar with the agreements. Amazon, the e-commerce giant that has made notable forays into the world of streaming-video entertainment, will have a ten-year deal that gives it exclusive rights to the Thursday games starting in 2023. “Amazon will be producing their own games and they will bring and new and interesting ways” to doing so, says Hans Schroeder, chief operating officer of NFL Media, during a call with media Thursday.

NFL and TV executives “understand streaming is truly the future,” says Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner who is chairman of the NFL Media Committee. The new pacts offer “a smooth, consumer-friendly transition to what we all know will be the future form of content distribution.”

The deals call for a significant step-up in fees. All the packages in total could amount to between $100 billion and $105 billion, according to some estimates, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declined to speak about details.  Fox and NBC are likely to be paying around $2 billion each year to keep the Sunday NFC package and “Sunday Night Football,” respectively, according to people familiar with the matter. Fox previously had been paying around $1.1 billion for rights, while NBC had previously paid around $950 million, the lowest of the TV-network price tags. Disney is expected to pay $2.7 billion, according to people familiar with the deals, compared with about $2 billion. ViacomCBS is seen paying around $2.1 billion per year for its Sunday-afternoon AFC package, according to these people, compared with around $1 billion.

In exchange for the exorbitant rights, the networks will get the chance to broadcast games in new venues. NBC will be able to simulcast “Sunday Night Football” on its streaming-video hub, Peacock, for example, and that service will over the life of the new contract get to air some games exclusively, according to one of these people. Fox will get to broadcast games on Christmas, and expand the games it can air on its Spanish-language service Fox Deportes. The company also gets an option to stream certain games on its Tubi service and align NFL games with its Fox Bet gaming business, according to one person familiar with the structure of some of the deals. ViacomCBS will get to stream games on its Paramount Plus broadband outlet,

Walt Disney’s ESPN will gain rights to air two Super Bowls over the course of the new contract. Its streaming service, ESPN Plus, will be able to stream one International Series game on an exclusive national basis every season and  simulcast all ABC and ESPN games.

The NFL Network, which had previously shared rights to broadcast Thursday Night Football, will continue to televise a select schedule of exclusive NFL games on a yearly basis, the NFL said.

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 costing 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.

Football represents a “fundamental pillar” for NBC Sports, said Pete Bevacqua, the unit’s chairman, in an interview. “You think about our overall sports strategy. This is a critical element of that.”

The game is “the dominant driver of advertising and promotion for the CBS broadcast network and it’s the greatest driver to date of subscriptions to Paramount Plus,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, in an interview.

Indeed, the new agreements have the potential to create new franchises that the creators of CBS’ “The NFL Today” and ABC’s original “Monday Night Football” never envisioned. CBS gains access to mobile rights, says McManus, something which it did not have in past agreements.\

And the shift in rights may give new impetus to streaming, thanks to the new agreement with Amazon. But that company will come under new scrutiny: the NFL’s Thursday-night franchise, which has proven difficult to monetize at CBS and NBC, the broadcast’s previous rights-holders, and at Fox, according to people familiar with the matter. Amazon may not be as concerned about the economics of pigskin, but its ability to produce football games and ancillary programming will be analyzed. In the past, Amazon picked up feeds from the broadcasters airing the games.

The rights discussions have been the talk of the sports industry for months, but there may be room for more discussion. Rights for the the “Sunday Ticket” at DirecTV will come up for grabs in about two years. Already, says ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro, Disney would be interested in talking about them.