NFL's Next TV Standoff: Thursday Night

2012-05 REP National Football League H
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images; Elisa/Getty Images

The league would love to create another lucrative package of games, but hurdles with coaches and players remain. Among them: More Thursday night games would increase wear and tear on players.

The league would love to create another lucrative package of games, but hurdles with coaches and players remain.

With the Feb. 5 marquee matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Giants, all signs point to a seventh consecutive year of viewership growth for the Super Bowl (111 million U.S. viewers tuned in last year, making it the most-watched TV broadcast ever). Now the NFL -- having polished off new deals in December with CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN that will pay the league an average of $3.1 billion a year through 2022 -- is looking to add another slate of televised games to its schedule. Contracts with the networks include a potentially lucrative loophole allowing a six- or seven-game Thursday night package to be added during the first half of the season. The idea is being resisted by coaches, who hate Thursday games because they allow players only three days' rest. But the package would be so lucrative -- depending on the buyer, it could go for as much as $50 million per game -- that owners might force the issue within a year or two. And TV networks already are jumping at the opportunity to air more pro football. "We're interested," says NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus. "We will take a good, hard look at those games for our cable assets." And a top Fox exec says his company would bid on the package for FX. Along with ESPN and TNT, the NFL Network -- which has been airing Thursday night games during the second half of the season since 2006 -- could be a suitor. The network reaches only half of U.S. TV homes because some operators won't pay monthly fees of about 75 cents per subscriber. "With more games, they might be willing to fork over the higher fees," says Horizon Media analyst Brad Adgate. "And the NFL also would get additional revenue by having more ad time to sell." That would boost the overall value of the NFL-owned cable network, creating even more revenue for club owners. But to satisfy coaches and players, the only way to get it done might be to add two games to the league's 16-game regular-season schedule and give teams a second week off during the season.