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Handicapping the Thursday Night Football Race

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Handicapping the Thursday Night Football Race
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Good news: we’re not getting an 18-game schedule!

If that’s the bad news for the NFL, here’s their good news: they’re going to take Thursday Night Football full season!

Back in 2006, the NFL surprised many observers by putting a slate of late-season Thursday night games on its own NFL Network, rebuffing offers from other cable networks.

Now reports are showing that the NFL will soon be awarding an early-season slate of Thursday-night games, giving those networks a second chance. And with the sports television wars heating up, the timing couldn’t be better, as the NFL, somewhat unexpectedly, plays host to the second major battle of the Wars with the Olympics in the rear view, one with no true incumbent.

Naturally, all the major cable players are involved, as well as one surprising dark horse: according to reports, Turner and Comcast are the front-runners. The NFL could even hand over control of the NFL Network to the winner.

Before we continue, I should mention that I doubt the NFL will sign with any network for more than two years, when their other contracts will expire. That means this contract will ultimately be a “trial balloon” of sorts. That said, here are the major players, what they have to gain, what they have going against them, and what their ultimate chances are:

 

Turner Sports

What they’re fighting for: Turner has the major advantage of not only having cable sports experience, but even being a pre-existing NFL rights holder, holding half the then-Sunday night package until ESPN decided they wanted the whole thing.

They’ve wanted to get back into the game ever since. Apparently during the 2005 negotiations, Turner had actually hired some analysts for games before striking out on all the packages. Putting NFL games on TNT would not only give them a shot at redemption, it also would be the best fit from the perspective of the uninformed casual fan wondering why the Thursday night games moved to the NFL Network midseason. The NFL would shuffle off TNT just in time for the NBA season to start. Turner also has experience running a league-owned network in NBA TV.

Then there’s the prestige factor. Turner would join ESPN as the only entities to have all four of the modern major sports at the same time.

What they have going against them: Turner is already established in the game, which means they don’t have as much to gain as the next contenders…

 

NBC/Comcast

What they’re fighting for: Simply put, nothing less than firmly establishing their position as the competitor to ESPN that they so dearly want to be.

You know Comcast is looking longingly at the blueprint ESPN established for their success using NFL games. They’d love to relish the sweet irony of turning that blueprint against them, especially with the ability to tie it in to the NBC Sunday Night package (and make the season-opening game on NBC a natural extension of the Thursday package). In fact, in 2005 Comcast and Versus came the closest of any other entity to getting the Thursday night package before the NFL took it to the NFL Network, setting up a lengthy carriage dispute between NFLN and the nation’s largest cable operator.

There’s a memo going around that Comcast tapped themselves out of cash on their Olympic bid, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. As I’ve said before, I don’t buy that two weeks every two years will grow the soon-to-be-NBC-Sports-Network, especially since audiences, even if they hate tape delays, have grown used to watching NBC’s primetime Olympic highlights packages.

For Comcast to spend so much money on the Olympics that they’d doom any effort to get another high-profile package seems like a risky all-in bet to me for their ESPN-killer hopes. And they, too, have experience running a league-owned network. NFLN could also look to the Golf Channel to see what a Comcast-run show might look like.

What they have going against them: I don’t think that Comcast is hurting too much for money in the short term. The NFL’s relationship with Comcast has improved since the NFLN carriage dispute, and NBC Sports Network could probably handle showing games just fine, even if it shows UFL games right now.

So what would a problem be?

Well, Comcast may ultimately decide that while the NFL would be nice, it has other options when it comes to growing the NBC Sports Network, inlcuding Major League Baseball in a year or two. For reasons I’ll get to when we get closer to those negotiations, if Comcast doesn’t win this fight I would consider them the favorites to snag some MLB games, and if Comcast decides they have a better chance of beating Turner or ESPN for MLB rights than beating a crowded field for eight NFL games, they might decide to underbid now.

 

Fox

What they’re fighting for: Fox has made no secret of their ambitions to return big-time sports to FX. The NFL would not only fit the bill, but would also tie in nicely to Fox’s existing NFL package, and NFLN would be just one more sport-specific network to join the likes of Speed, Fox Soccer Channel, BTN, and Fuel TV.

What they have going against them: Fox’s existing NFL package is all the NFC games the primetime packages don’t snag, while FX would show games from both CBS and Fox, which would be awkward.

But a far bigger issue is that according to reports, cable operators have a clause that protects them from any rate hikes for FX. That means that nothing Fox adds to FX’s lineup can increase their revenue from subscriber fees, effectively reducing FX to the level of a broadcast network and preventing them from effectively competing with networks that can hike their fees to cable operators.

I would expect Fox to try to change this at the soonest opportunity – whether or not they can is another matter – but until they do, any serious effort to turn FX into a sports power is likely to be a nonstarter, including netting them a slate of NFL games.

FX will likely have to settle for its new UFC programming to grow their sports brand, along with select college football games.

 

ESPN

What they’re fighting for: An existing slate of NFL games that would tie in neatly, as well as the most powerful brand in sports. Also, ESPN once floated the idea of increasing NFLN’s distribution by merging it with ESPN Classic, so they’ve flirted with taking over the network before. For the most part, though, ESPN is mostly fighting to keep this slate away from (or make it cost-prohibitive for) their competitors, especially Comcast.

What they have going against them: Besides their utter lack of motivation, ESPN has already committed to college football on Thursdays. Their fall slate is already pretty crowded, though ESPN could bump college football to the Deuce.

Also, while ESPN may have flirted with NFL Network before, they have never run a network owned by another entity – Longhorn Network, which is less than a week old, is wholly owned by ESPN – and neither ESPNU nor LHN quite prepares them for the challenges they’d face running the NFL Network, owned by them or not.

 

Spike TV

What they’re fighting for: The big five contenders in the sports TV wars represent only five of the top six biggest media conglomerates in the country. You have to imagine that Viacom – the other half of the split that produced the CBS Corporation – wants to take their own place in the wars. Since the then-National Network picked up WWE programming in 2000, the network now known as Spike TV has used first WWE and later UFC programming to goose its fortunes. Now the UFC has bailed for Fox, and Spike may feel it needs another draw. The NFL would seem to fit the bill nicely.

What they have going against them: I’ll believe that Viacom is serious about competing in the bidding war when I see it. For now, I’ll simply point out that like Turner, Viacom doesn’t have a broadcast TV outlet (not even a potential one like the CW). Like Turner, Viacom could shack up with its former corporate sibling CBS for anything that would seem to need a broadcast outlet.

Unlike Turner, Viacom has zero experience broadcasting sports (even their WWE and UFC programming has been produced by those entities themselves) other than TNN’s time showcasing the short-lived XFL, and even less experience running a league-owned network. It’s going to take a lot to convince any league to shack up with someone as unproven as Spike.

Comcast managed to convince the NHL to shack up with a little outfit called the Outdoor Life Network; can Spike convince a prominent league to do the same? In any case, Spike isn’t mentioned in the SportsBusiness Daily’s latest reporting on the subject, so they’re probably out of the running by now, if they ever were.

Who will ultimately come out on top? Past history backs up the notion that Comcast and Turner are the favorites, as does motivation. Both factors also suggest Comcast will come out ahead.

By all accounts, Versus would have nabbed the Thursday Night Football rights in 2006 if the NFL hadn’t given them to the NFL Network, and Comcast has far more motivation as well, with nothing less than the cornerstone of a new sports empire at stake. If the soon-to-be NBC Sports Network wins this package, it will go down as a turning point in the history of sports television in America, the point that gave birth to an entity with enough firepower to challenge ESPN’s stranglehold over the sports landscape.

Back in July, Ken Fang of the Fang’s Bites blog tabbed Fox as the third favorite over ESPN, citing Fox’s motivation and ESPN’s crowded schedule. I think he underestimates the impact of FX’s inability to raise subscriber rates, as well as ESPN’s desperate desire for Comcast not to get the rights. The last thing ESPN wants is for Comcast to gain a foothold that would allow them to become a true competitor. Unless Turner proves virtually untouchable, I would expect ESPN to stay in the race right to the end, at least trying to influence the outcome.

Comcast is the most likely to pick up eight Thursday night NFL games unless Turner and ESPN can hold them off. I don’t know if ESPN can tip the scales from Comcast to Turner, but they can certainly bite the bullet and crowd their Thursday night schedule in the early season if they value not having a lot more to worry about from Comcast for many, many years to come. Many sports fans have been hoping for some sort of real competition to ESPN. Within a month, they may have their answer.

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