As we learned last week, the NFL is shopping around the first half of a Thursday Night Football package that would begin in time for the 2012 season. The games would come from the Sunday afternoon games from CBS and Fox and be aired during Weeks 2 — 9 of the regular season. NFL Network would continue carrying the second half of the package starting in Week 10. NBC has the traditional Season Opener at the home of the defending Super Bowl champion in Week 1 so that’s how Thursday Night Football would breakdown.
NFL owners feel the first half of Thursday Night Football would be worth an estimated $700 million a year and there are certainly interested networks interested in bidding for the package.
As John Ourand and Daniel Kaplan wrote in Sports Business Journal, the early frontrunners for the first half of Thursday Night Football are Turner Sports which could place the games either on TBS, TNT or truTV and NBC/Comcast which would air the games on Versus. Fox is a possible suitor and it could place the package on FX which the company is attempting to make a sports destination. And there’s always the possibility that ESPN could swoop in and take the package, although that looks rather distant right now as Thursday nights on the Alleged Worldwide Leader have been reserved for college football.
If you think it’s strange that the NFL would break up a package, there is precedence. Back in 1990, the NFL decided to expand its cable Sunday Night Football package from the second half of the regular season which had been awarded to ESPN to a full season. TNT was awarded the first half and kept the package until 1997 when ESPN decided it wanted the games all to itself and took Sunday Night Football until 2005.
So let’s take a look at the interested parties and how they might fare.
As mentioned, Turner is a previous NFL TV rightsholder. Since losing Sunday Nitro in 1997, Turner has been yearning to get back into airing pro football. In the last negotiation in 2005, TNT went so far to look to hire potential analysts for games, only to see ESPN take Monday Night Football, Sunday Nitro go to NBC and a new Thursday Night package go to NFL Network. Turner would love nothing more to gain the rights once again and it could use the first half of the NFL regular season as a nice lead-in to its NBA Thursday night package. Where would the games air? Either TBS, TNT or tru TV, but with TBS airing MLB playoff games in October, I would think that would be out. truTV was found during the NCAA Tournament and Turner could increase its profile by putting games there, but the best destination would be TNT.
Who could we see on an NFL on Turner Sports package? Hosts could be either Ernie Johnson, Jr. who hosted from 1991 — 1994 or NBA TV host Matt Winer. For play-by-play, there’s Marv Albert, but he was just hired by CBS and I’m not sure if he would want to double up on games early in the season. Kevin Harlan is a possibility also, but again, he would have to double up early, but he does it for a full season on CBS and calling Monday Night Football on Westwood One Radio. Turner desperately wants to get the NFL back and this would be ideal for the company. Can you imagine TNT using “Thursday Nitro”?
Just for old times sake, here’s a Sunday Nitro promo from 1990.
I miss Sunday Nitro. Even though TNT used for just one season, it resonated with me.
Odds of Turner winning Thursday Nitro: 4-1.
NBC Sports Group/Comcast
In 2004, Comcast offered a reported $450 million to the NFL to put an 8 game Thursday night package on what was then known as OLN (Outdoor Life Network). Comcast was willing to give the NFL an equity stake in the channel, but the league rejected the offer and eventually placed the games on NFL Network. It led to a nasty dispute between the NFL and Comcast as the league wanted placement for NFL Network, but Comcast was only willing to put the channel on unpopular sports tier. After extensive bickering and rancorous negotiations, the two parties were finally able to settle their differences in May 2009. And with Comcast taking over NBC earlier this year, the relations between the two entities are now quite peaceful.
Here’s another chance for Comcast to purchase an 8 game NFL package to place on its flagship sports cable TV network and create even more clearance for Versus. Who would we see on a Thursday Night Football package on Versus? With NBC Sports Group running the channel, perhaps you’ll see NHL and Tour de France host Liam McHugh as the studio host. Maybe Tom Hammond who was passed over for NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football play-by-play could call the games on Versus. Bob Papa who lost the NFL Network play-by-play gig for no good reason could get a little revenge by calling the first half of the season for Versus. Heck, even throw in Mike Mayock as an analyst to give him a full season of calling the Thursday Night package on both Versus and NFL Network, but I doubt that would happen.
Odds of Versus winning Thursday Night Football: 3-1
I would think Fox would be interested in a cable package for FX as an extension of its NFL on Fox brand. And this would be perfect for Gus Johnson who has become Fox Sports’ college football announcer. Imagine him back with the NFL in primetime! He and analyst Charles Davis could call an NFL game on Thursday night and do a Big 12, C-USA or Pac-12 game on Saturday for eight weeks. It would be a great combo. And Fox Sports could use Curt Menefee as host for Thursday Night Football and bring in the guys from Fox NFL Sunday to do the pregame. The only drawback is that Fox really can’t raise subscriber rates for FX according to Ourand and Kaplan from Sports Business Journal. If that’s the case, then FX won’t be able to get maximum monetization from the NFL, getting that double revenue stream from subscribers and ads that ESPN and NFL Network can take advantage of.
Even with this potential roadblock, expect Fox to at least take a look.
Odds of Fox/FX winning Thursday Night Football: 12-1
Back in 2005, ESPN was negotiating for both Sunday and Monday Night Football. As was chronicled in “Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN”, a combined bid for the two packages was seen as not reflecting fair market value at the time and that’s when the NFL went to NBC for Sunday Night Football. With ESPN successful on Thursday nights for college football, I’m not sure if the network would want to bid for another NFL package, but one cannot predict what the powers that be in Bristol are thinking. Thursday night college football games could be pushed to ESPN2. Would we see the Monday Night Football crew call games on Thursday night? I would say that’s unlikely. Maybe ESPN would bring Brad Nessler to the fold and have him call the first half of the package and not have him do NFL Network after this season. The network has plenty of analysts who could call games and yes, expect Chris Berman to host if ESPN wins the package.
I do see ESPN bidding on this just to see if it can force the others to raise their price. There’s an outside chance that it could win. As long as ESPN can see itself making money, then a Thursday Night Football package on the Alleged Worldwide Leader is not outside the realm of possibility.
Odds of ESPN winning Thursday Night Football: 15-1.
Viacom’s Spike TV could also put in a bid, but I think the NFL would want to have the games on a channel that has established sports properties.
My personal favorite is Turner Sports, but I can see Comcast being awarded the games as well. The others are outsiders at this point. Once the NFL lockout is resolved, this is a story I’ll be monitoring for you.