NFL Targets Massive Payday in Thursday Night TV Deal

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A long-term pact is expected as NBCU seeks to outbid CBS and others for the last major sports package available for years.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

One of the last big sports rights opportunities for several years is about to become available to TV networks. The NFL's Thursday Night Football — which for the past two seasons has aired on CBS via one-year deals — is generating intense interest as the league is likely to extend the length of the package significantly to bring it in line with other TV rights pacts, most of which run through the 2022 season. (ESPN's eight-year, $15.2 billion Monday Night Football deal extends through 2021; contracts for Sunday afternoon games on CBS and Fox and NBC's Sunday Night Football expire in 2022.)

Analysts predict a long-term Thursday Night Football arrangement could go for $600 million annually and potentially much higher when dealmaking begins in earnest in January. "Thursday night will sell for less than Sunday night, though how much less depends upon how fierce the competition," notes Patrick Rishe, founder and CEO of analyst firm Sportsimpacts.

CBS, Fox, NBC and Turner have signaled interest in the Thursday package. As the incumbent, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus would seem to have an advantage. (The net paid $275 million for the eight-game Thursday package last season and re-upped this season for about $300 million.) But the games are said to be a top priority for NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke. Certainly, NBC Sports under Mark Lazarus has been aggressive in acquiring and keeping live contests. Last year, the company agreed to pay $7.75 billion for six Olympics, locking up the Games through 2032. Turner Sports also has indicated a strong desire for Thursday Night Football.

Last year, TNF averaged a little more than 12 million viewers a game on CBS and NFL Network, where they are simulcast. (CBS' Sunday afternoon package averaged 18.7 million viewers last season.) This season, the Sept. 17 TNF opener set a record for the franchise, with more than 21 million viewers watching the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. But critics say the Thursday games often feature inferior matchups, and the fluctuating ratings reflect those hit-and-miss contests.

Plus, the Thursday package may not be the only rights deal for the NFL: The league also might look to package global digital rights for its international series. The NFL pulled in $20 million from Yahoo for the rights to the Oct. 25 Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game from London's Wembley Stadium. Yahoo's first free global live stream of an NFL game notched 15.2 million unique viewers. The league may expand its international series from three games next season, possibly adding a fourth game in Mexico. It is expected to announce its 2016 international series Nov. 25.

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