The first Sunday of this new National Football League season will feature something fans will get used to, double double headers.
Both Fox and CBS will be airing games at both 1 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m, a move that may not help either network’s individual ratings but will, the NFL expects, result in more people watching its games.
The double-double headers are a feature of the new $100 billion long-term rights agreements the NFL reached with its television partners in May. The deals don’t go into effect until the 2023 season, but some aspects are going into effect as soon as this season, said Mike North, VP, broadcast planning & scheduling at the NFL.
The past few seasons, the NFL has ended the season with double double headers. That will continue. And the opening week double-double headers are also expected to continue through the length of the new contracts, North said.
“That will be the new normal moving forward,” North said. “The challenge for us is to try to balance that 4:25 window between CBS and Fox so they both have good games, national television, primetime-level games.”
Sunday’s late games will feature the Green Bay Packers playing the New Orleans Saints on Fox and the Cleveland Browns taking on the Kansas City Chiefs on CBS.
“Our hope is that we attract more people to the television on Sunday afternoon in that 4:25 window. While each game on their own probably doesn’t get close to what a CBS or Fox doubleheader game standing alone would have done in year’s past, those two 4:25 window combine should really set some historical levels for us,” North said.
Last year NFL regular season ratings were down 7%.
“We all know 2020 was an unusual year with pandemic factors,” said Adriane Berman, director of media analytics at the NFL. On top of that, the presidential election drew an abnormally high number of viewers to cable news and COVID pushed other sports to play during football season.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that this season some of those macro factors that impacted us will not be there,” Berman said.
Despite the lower ratings, ad revenue from the regular season were up 2.7% to $2.77 billion, according to Standard Media Index. The television networks that air NFL games are also bullish, reporting strong upfront sales and record price increases for commercials.
There are a few other changes in the way the league decides how games appear on television this season.
Later in the season, decisions about changing the game that appears on NBC’s Sunday Night Football will be made one week before the game instead of two weeks prior. “We can wait until the last possible minute and make the right choice for our viewers,” North said.
And the last weekend of the season, NFL games will have games on Saturday night before double double headers on Sunday. The league will try to choreograph the matchup so that suspense about which teams will make the playoffs will be sustained until Sunday night, North said.
This year the NFL has expanded its schedule to a 17 game season over 18 weeks and added a Wild Card playoff game. The league is confident that will also enhance viewership.
“We’re pretty bullish on what the extra week of the season is going to bring, not just in terms of ratings for that one extra week, but I think it will really help us overall,” said Berman.
Adding an extra week of games also helped the NFL’s scheduling team because those extra, mostly interesting matchups between teams from different conferences, are “free agents,” North said.
Sunday NFL games in which the AFC team plays in an NFC stadium belong to CBS, while games in which an NFC team plays at an AFC team belong to Fox. Some of those games get moved either to primetime or to the other network in order to balance the schedule.
The new Week 18 games aren’t part of that arrangement, so schedules are freer to put them where viewers can find them. “They were almost like blank Scrabble tiles as you’re moving them around the board,” North said.
They’re also expected to be among the highest rated games of the year, Berman said.
Under the new contract those rules change and all of the games will be free agents, North said.
“That additional flexibility will surely help the scheduling team as we look to maximize ratings, not just for our traditional media partners, but also some of the additional digital outlets,” he said.
Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting + Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.
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