A simple dictum has hung among the quotations on the office wall of Steve Bornstein, head of the NFL Network, since his days running ESPN in the 1990s: “You can’t go to Blockbuster and rent tonight’s game.” Blockbuster may have faded, but the allure of live sports hasn’t. The latest testament to pro football’s money-spinning magic is the NFL Network, which is using its lock on 13 Thursday night games to power a $1.1 billion-a-year pay-TV channel that’s tearing away viewers from the major broadcast networks on what traditionally had been their best night. “If you like it, you stay,” says Bornstein, the executive vice president for media at the National Football League, who previously turned ESPN into a cable-sports behemoth and profit machine for Walt Disney. “That was the concept behind ESPN 30 years ago. We’ve just taken it with the most popular content on the planet, NFL football.”
By reserving Thursday games for the NFL Network, the league is forgoing an estimated $1.45 billion a year in revenue it likely could charge other media outlets for rights to those midweek matches. The NFL is betting it can wring out even more revenue over the long term by showing the games on its own. The league had aired eight Thursday night games on the NFL Network late in the season every year since 2006. But in 2011, when the league negotiated new contracts with CBS, News Corp.’s Fox, Comcast’s NBC, and ESPN for $6 billion annually, it added five more games to its own Thursday night lineup. Now, with scheduled match-ups from September to December, the channel airs games in three-quarters of the 17-week NFL season.