NFL Eyes Simulcasting Games On Thursdays

As it tries to build a Thursday television franchise, one option the National Football League might pull out of its playbook is the simulcast.

The NFL sent out a request for proposal offering a package of Thursday night games to its partners and other networks who might be interested being in the football business. One proposal is to air the games both on the NFL Network, where they ran last season, and on another broadcast or cable outlet for one year, according to people familiar with what the NFL is discussing.

The object of the simulcast would be to more deeply engrain a Thursday night football habit into viewers. Last season, Thursday Night Football on the NFL Network, which has only 72 million subscribers, averaged 6.74 million viewers, up 4.7% from the year ago. But that still trailed the 21.75 million viewers who tuned in to watch Sunday Night Football on NBC. It also trailed the 13.68 million viewers who watched Monday Night Football on ESPN. Fox’s Sunday afternoon games drew 21.12 million viewers and CBS had 18.63 million viewers.

A simulcast would add to the promotion of Thursday and create a greater opportunity for viewers to find the games. The NFL would add the ratings on NFL Network with those on the second channel to get a number closer to what it gets on the other, more established channels. With that number in hand, the NFL would be able to get a much higher license fee when it sells an exclusive package of games on Thursday night.

The NFL is also expected to keep at least seven games on the NFL Network, in order to comply with the carriage deals it has with cable operators and other distributors.

Selling a simulcast package might generate less money for the league than an exclusive package, but one executive familiar with the league’s plans noted that this wasn’t about short-term dollars but about building a the long-term value of the Thursday night franchise.

It was unclear whether the NFL Network and its simulcast partner would produce games separately or whether commercial time would be sold as a single higher-rated package.

It was also unclear how cable operators would react to having games they’re paying the NFL Network for also potentially being available on free over-the-air broadcast networks.

The NFL declined to comment on the possibility of a simulcast. Several television networks contacted also declined to comment.

There is some precedent for the simulcasting of NFL games. As part of its deal with ESPN and the NFL Network, games are aired on local stations in the home markets of the participating teams. In 2007, when the New England Patriots were attempting to become the first team to go undefeated since the 1972 Miami Dolphins, their last game was scheduled to be on the NFL Network, then available in just 40% of TV homes. The league allowed both NBC and CBS to broadcast the contest. And going a ways back, the first Super Bowl was broadcast by both the NFL’s network CBS and the NBC, which carried the upstart American Football League.

The NFL has asked that networks submit their proposals by the end of the week.

The league is said to prefer that its new package of games air on a broadcast network to compliment the NFL Network on cable and to build favor with lawmakers concerned about the continued availability of sports on free TV and the rising cost of cable.

Although they are owned at least partly by current NFL partners, it was unclear whether the league would want its games on either the Fox’s MyNetworkTV or the CW, owned by CBS and Time Warner.

One sports industry executive suggested that putting games on one of those smaller networks would boost the channels profile and increase the value of its affiliates by creating leverage to generate higher retransmission fees from distributors.

(Credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

Jon Lafayette

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.