Fox Snags 'Thursday Night Football' in Massive Five-Year Deal

Redskins and Cowboys - November 30, 2017 game- Getty-H 2017
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The deal covers 11 regular-season games between weeks four and 15 (excluding the Thanksgiving night game, which NBC will continue to broadcast).

The NFL and Fox Sports have agreed to a massive five-year deal to broadcast Thursday Night Football beginning with the 2018 season. The agreement encompasses 11 regular-season games between weeks four and 15 (excluding Thanksgiving night, which NBC will continue to broadcast).

The joint announcement was made Wednesday morning by Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, and Peter Rice, president of 21st Century Fox.

The deal means TNF will have one home on broadcast; for the last two seasons CBS and NBC shared the rights — along with the NFL Network. The deal is valued at a reported $550 million annually. Last year, CBS and NBC paid $45 million per game for a deal valued at a combined $450 million annually for 10 games also simulcast on NFL Network.

The deal also includes digital rights, which will allow Fox to distribute Thursday Night Football and its Sunday afternoon games to Fox subscribers on a variety of platforms, including, for the first time, mobile. The NFL is in the process of lining up a digital partner for the package. During a conference call with reporters on Wednesday morning Goodell said that the league has fielded "unprecedented competition from a number of digital" suitors. A decision is expected in the coming weeks. And the digital deal may not run along the five-year span of the TV deal. Last year, Amazon agreed to pay $50 million for the rights to stream Thursday Night Football for one season. 

“This agreement is the culmination of over 10 years of strategic growth around Thursday Night Football, a period during which this property has grown from a handful of late season games on NFL Network to a full season of games and one of the most popular shows on broadcast television with additional distribution via cable and digital channels,” said Goodell. “As one of the leaders in sports television and a recognized innovator of NFL game broadcasts for many years, we’re excited to be extending our partnership with Fox Sports, one of our most trusted and valued partners, to include Thursday Night Football." 

The deal will mean a boost to Fox’s primetime ratings — even with the recent ratings dip for the NFL. Fox’s primetime is second to NBC's among viewers 18-49, but is last among the big four in total viewers.

Regular season NFL games were off close to 10 percent ratings-wise for the regular season that just ended. But the NFL nevertheless remains arguably the most valuable live sports asset on the market. The league had nine of TV’s 10 most-watched programs in 2017. On Fox, the regular season averaged 22.7 million viewers, the highest rated of the NFL packages.

The pact also signals 21st Century Fox's positioning of Fox in the wake of a $52.4 billion agreement to sell many of its cable and studio assets to Disney while keeping its news and sports networks. If the deal passes regulatory muster, the "new Fox" will be a much smaller entity with news and sports playing a larger role in the slimmed-down company. As such, sports rights are critical to bolster Fox and its cable sports destinations Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2. Goodell stressed the reach of broadcasting even as the media landscape continues to fracture.

“We believe it’s the best [platform] for our fans because it's the most widely distributed," he said. "The big events continue to be on broadcast television with the largest possible audience”  

Rice said he was not concerned about the ratings declines for the NFL and noted that it was the deal that the network made 25 years ago to carry football that was the most critical programming piece in launching Rupert Murdoch’s then-fledgling network.

“Fox broadcasting was built on the power of the NFL,” said Rice. “Everybody likes to talk about the prices for sports rights, the NFL in particular. Every deal that we’ve ever made going back 25 years with the NFL, people have said that we overpaid. I think we’re getting tremendous value here.”