A potential twist has the attention of broadcast and league insiders as the NFL prepares to announce its 2014 schedule. The league's work to elevate its new Thursday night package -- and eventually sell it for billions of dollars -- could have some intriguing ripple effects.
Namely: Will it steer better games to Thursday nights? And if so, at whose expense will that shift occur?
Since 2006, NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has been the NFL's premium prime-time event. It traditionally gets the best collection of games and is the only package that can "flex" uncompetitive late-season matchups for more interesting ones. ESPN broadcasts "Monday Night Football" and, until this year, the NFL Network has handled Thursday nights.
In February, however, CBS reportedly paid the league between $250 million and $275 million for the right to simulcast eight Thursday night games along with the NFL Network. (The rest of the 16-game package will air only on the NFL Network, although CBS will continue producing it.) The Thursday night deal is for one year, although the league has an option for 2015. Its short tenure suggests that 2014 is a product trial that could fetch a much more lucrative annual fee in future years. (For context, consider that ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion annually for "Monday Night Football" and other considerations.)
How best to generate more Thursday night interest? One place to start would be sliding more prominent games into that slot, a possibility that John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported on this month. According to Ourand, media executives believe the Thursday night schedule will be closer in quality to the traditional Sunday night slate and could well supersede what is assigned to Monday night.
There is no standard formula for determining the quality of a schedule from a broadcast perspective. So in the chart, I measured the three 2013 prime-time schedules by three strength-based criteria:
The number of games between teams that both made the playoffs in 2012.
The number of games between division opponents
The number of games involving at least one "popular" team using the results of the 2013 Harris Interactive poll of favorite NFL teams. Somewhat arbitrarily, I declared a "popular" team to be among the top 10 finishers in that poll: The Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, New York Giants, New England Patriots, Chicago Bears, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins.
When you look at the 2013 prime-time schedule from that perspective, you see how skewed it was toward "Sunday Night Football" -- even before it flexed three games and moved its Week 17 matchup from TBA to Eagles-Cowboys. "Sunday Night Football" also received a number of "storyline games," from the NFL's 2013 Kickoff Game to the heated 49ers-Seattle Seahawks rivalry to Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis.
If the league in fact seeks to strengthen its Thursday night schedule, you could see movement in those numbers. You also wonder if Thursday night will get one of receiver DeSean Jackson's games against the Eagles, who released him this offseason. Or perhaps it will broadcast receiver Steve Smith's reunion with the Carolina Panthers, or one of cornerback Darrelle Revis' games against the New York Jets.
There are some complicating factors, of course. Most notably, the NFL schedule formula remains the same, so there can be no increase in the inventory of "good games." Also, league parity makes it vulnerable to unexpected competitive slips. (Hello, last season's "Monday Night Football" matchup of the Vikings and Giants.) The NFL must also comply with a requirement to schedule all 32 teams to play at least one Thursday game, and it also must respect the Sunday afternoon games aired on CBS and Fox.
There is little doubt that Howard Katz, the NFL's schedule czar, can pull it all off if so instructed. Wednesday's news that the NFL had exercised an option to move a wild-card playoff game to ESPN added an additional level of anticipation. Was it a coincidence of timing a concession? In either event, I'll focus on this angle when the announcement comes at 8 p.m. ET, and I'll follow up in an Inside Slant post no later than Friday morning. Until then, enjoy our newest national holiday.