NFL players don’t care for “Thursday Night Football” games, but the telecasts remain enormously lucrative for networks and now another has joined in the bidding to carry the games starting in September.
21st Century Fox has submitted a bid with scenarios that involve the Fox broadcast network and Fox Sports 1 on cable, according to a Bloomberg report that follows a report earlier this week that Disney is pursuing a package for the games, which would be telecast on ABC with ESPN branding and talent.
NBC and CBS have split the telecasts of 10 games for the last two years under a $900 million contract that is expiring and they plan to bid on the new contract, too. So does Amazon, which paid $50 million for the streaming rights for one year. (The owner of Amazon, Jeffrey Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
For Disney, acquiring the package would give it a prime-time game for ABC, which moved “Monday Night Football” to ESPN in 2005. For Fox, the move shows the company’s thinking after reports that it plans to sell many of its assets to Disney for $52.4 billion.
Players have ripped the Thursday games because they need more than a few days to recover after playing on Sunday. Although Fox has asked that the game stay on Thursday in its bid, other bids have proposed scheduling teams that have more than a week of rest or moving some to other days of the week.
“Guys don’t have time to recover,” Seahawks wideout Doug Baldwin said after a brutal game in November. “Hard to recover in four days.”
Asked whether all the injuries were Exhibit A as to why Thursday night games are tough on NFL players, Baldwin said: “It’s Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit Z. Thursday night football should be illegal.”
The NFL is expected to make a decision soon, timing its announcement around the Feb. 4 Super Bowl.
Ratings for the NFL dwindled last season, but it remains the most popular product on network TV, with “Sunday Night Football” the top-rated show for a seventh consecutive season despite concerns about saturating the market and a dire 2014 prediction by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that the league was about “10 years away from implosion.”
“I’m just telling you, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,” the billionaire and “Shark Tank” star said at the time. “And they’re getting hoggy. Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule number one of business.”
The sport is everywhere: Thursday nights, Sunday mornings from London, Sunday afternoons, Sunday nights, Monday nights and two Saturday nights in December. In-game highlights are everywhere on social media, websites and mobile apps and the Red Zone channel allow fans to watch every touchdown and keep up with their fantasy teams, diluting the attention they pay to actual games.
In October, Cuban reiterated his prediction, telling the Post in an email: “The NFL still has great TV ratings relative to other shows. That said, I think the problem I outlined continues and is accelerating for the NFL.”
James Murdoch, the Fox CEO, cited Thursday night games specifically. “I do think the proliferation of Thursday availability – and the proliferation of football generally – does mean that you’re asking a lot from customers to watch Thursday,” he said in October. “And then they watch a lot more college football games on Saturdays, and then on Sundays, and then on ‘Monday Night Football,’ etc. It’s a lot. So I do think that preserving the scarcity value of those events and that audience is something that is worth thinking about.”
The NFL quickly disputed that. “We are not oversaturated,” spokesman Joe Lockhart said at that time, “though we will always look at that.”