NFL's Thursday Night in Play


Cable networks will soon line up to pay huge money for a new eight-game package.

With the labor dispute between NFL owners and players nearing the goal line, another tussle is about to begin: A new TV package of eight early-season Thursday night games will soon be available to bidders, and the price tag could be more than $600 million a year.

Among those expected to suit up for negotiations are ESPN, Comcast's Versus, Turner's TBS and truTV and Fox's FX. The networks are salivating at expanding the NFL from a Sunday-Monday franchise to a third day for the season.

"If the NFL makes an additional TV package available, we'd certainly be interested in having a discussion about it," a Fox Sports spokesman tells THR. Echoes ESPN, "The new package is something we'll give a serious look."

It makes sense. Last season, NBC's Sunday Night Football was the most-watched primetime show of the fall, averaging nearly 22 million viewers a game. ESPN's Monday Night Football was cable's No. 1 franchise, averaging 14.7 million viewers. And Fox and CBS have found football to be a solid Sunday performer and primetime lead-in.

Still, the big four networks are unlikely to bid because Thursday games would disrupt schedules early in the season, when viewer sampling of new shows is critical. Nor is the league's NFL Network, which already airs eight late-season games, expected to take part in the hunt.

"Turner seems the most likely candidate," notes Patrick Rishe, director of research firm Sportsimpacts. "This would be a significant complement to their current inventory." Turner's TNT airs the NBA, baseball and NASCAR.

Versus, which offered $400 million for the games that went to the NFL Network starting in 2006, is looking to capitalize on its corporate synergy with NBC Sports. NBC already pays $650 million a year for Sunday Night Football, but landing games on Versus could boost the cable network in the same way ESPN was buoyed in 2006 when ABC moved Monday Night Football there.

ESPN, which pays $1.1 billion annually for the NFL, could move to keep the games off Versus. And while FX's contract prohibits passing on the cost of football to affiliates, Fox could foot the bill and then make higher fees part of renegotiations when affiliate contracts come up.

The Thursday games would dilute the Sunday packages on CBS and Fox, each of which pays $700 million annually for rights, and DirecTV, which doles out $1 billion a year for its Sunday Ticket slate. Of course, DirecTV could also enter the fray as a bidder.