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NFL's New Plan for Thursday Nights May Spark a Fee Fight With Cable

NFL Thursday Night Football on Dec. 10, 2013 in Denver

Photograph by Ric Tapia/AP Photo

NFL Thursday Night Football on Dec. 10, 2013 in Denver

Two years ago the NFL announced it was adding five Thursday night games to its NFL Network programming. The additions brought the network’s total to 13 per season. The beefier schedule allowed the league-owned channel to strike deals with a pair of reluctant cable providers—Cablevision Systems (CVC) and Time Warner Cable (TWC)—and to bring its per-subscriber price to $1.34, second-highest in the industry, behind ESPN (DIS).

The league, it appeared, had made the choice to bolster its cable venture in lieu of selling the broadcast rights to its games to the highest bidder. “For the foreseeable future, we’ll have 13 games,” NFL Chief Operating Officer Brian Rolapp said at the time. “There are no plans to put those on and take those off. … For years to come, we plan to have 13 games on the network.”

The foreseeable future is apparently two years. Earlier this month, according to multiple reports, the NFL asked several broadcast and cable outlets to submit bids for the rights to up to eight Thursday night games next season—to be taken from, or shared with, the NFL Network. And according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports (CBS) NFL Insider, the league’s plan has always been “to use the full-season package to get higher carriage fees and get on Time Warner Cable, then sell off half the package.” If so, Time Warner and the rest of the network’s carriers will be interested to hear it.

“If you buy an eight-cylinder car, and they take four cylinders away halfway through the life of the car, that’s not right,” says Craig Gilley, a partner at Edwards Wildman Palmer who has experience negotiating contracts for cable operators. Gilley says cable providers will have contingency clauses in their contracts to cover changes in programming. “It would certainly be spelled out,” he says. “No one is going to spend that type of money per subscriber without paying a lot of attention to those types of issues.”

Yesterday, sources told Sports Business Journal that the NFL is demanding that the winning bidder simulcast Thursday night games on NFL Network. This would make the offering less valuable to potential bidders but could protect the league from carriers demanding fee reductions. According to SBJ, the network “needs to retain a certain number of games to keep its current affiliate fee rate.” This leaves some very expensive questions. How many games? And does a simulcast count the same as an exclusive telecast?

The NFL declined to address these questions and sent the following sent statement via spokesman Brian McCarthy: ”We want to accelerate the growth, quality and promotion of Thursday night NFL football. Bringing on a partner can help us accelerate our success across all the games. NFL Network has done a tremendous job building Thursday night and will retain games, but we are in discussions to air a part of the package with existing and potentially new broadcast and cable partners.”

Only the NFL could possibly get away with selling a diluted product to both cable carriers and broadcasters at premium prices. According to league spokesman Greg Aiello, NFL games account for all eight TV programs to average more than 30 million viewers since last year’s Academy Awards.


Even the league’s Thursday night games, featuring exhausted players and less-than thrilling matchups, average audiences of 8 million and are consistently the most-watched cable show of the night.

Boudway is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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