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CBS's $275 Million Thursday-Night NFL Headache

The Pittsburgh Steelers play against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 28, 2013 in Baltimore
The Pittsburgh Steelers play against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 28, 2013 in BaltimorePhotograph by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

For CBS executives, the Ravens vs. Steelers game on Thursday, Sept. 11, was supposed to be an easy victory. There would be a solemn remembrance of a national tragedy followed by a nod to American perseverance, culminating in a rousing early-season matchup between fierce division rivals. The ratings would be huge. The post-game media coverage would be laudatory. Paying $275 million for the rights to produce and broadcast Thursday night football games for the first half of the NFL season would be seen universally as a master stroke for the network. Earlier this year after announcing the deal, CBS boss Leslie Moonves routinely discussed the partnership with the NFL in triumphant terms. He called it a “sure thing.”

But, in an age of leaguewide parity, there are no easy victories for NFL teams. And, in an age of growing ambivalence about football’s violence, the same is increasingly true for NFL broadcasters. With the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell now hanging on by a thread amid the growing outrage over his handling of the Ray Rice scandal, CBS finds itself presiding over not just a big football game but also over a much bigger and damaging news story about its business partner.