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Volume 21 No. 1
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NFL: No quick call on Thursday option expected

As CBS puts extensive marketing and promotional resources behind its inaugural season of “Thursday Night Football,” look for the NFL to wait until after the season before it decides whether to stay with the network or take the package back to the open market.

CBS signed a one-year deal worth $275 million in February to share the package with NFL Network. The league holds a one-year option on the deal where it can either stay with CBS or open bidding on the package again.

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus: “I don’t think there are any circumstances under which we wouldn’t want to continue with Thursday night.”
“It’s a long season, and I’d be surprised if we made the decision during it,” said NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp. “We really haven’t talked about it, but I think we’ll look at the whole season and make a determination.”

All the broadcast networks — including ABC, Fox and NBC — bid on the Thursday night package earlier this year, and sources with each of the networks have said that they are likely to bid again. Plus, Turner Sports is planning to bid on the package when it comes to market again, and cable channels Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network are expected to be interested in the package, too.

ESPN did not bid on the package earlier this year, and it’s not clear if it would be interested in it.

“Broadcast certainly helps, but that doesn’t mean going forward we won’t create a cable package out of this,” Rolapp said. “Cable could play a part in this. We haven’t ruled out any distributors going forward. We’re really concentrating on this CBS relationship; then we’ll make a determination.”

Clearly, CBS wants to keep the package beyond this season, and that’s been evident by the heavy marketing effort that started in February, two weeks after the network found out that it won the package.

“I don’t think there are any circumstances under which we wouldn’t want to continue with Thursday night,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “Compared to other prime-time programming, the ratings will be incredibly robust.”

Of course, the main reason the NFL will open the package after only one year is if the league believes that it will get significantly more than CBS is paying. But several factors will inform the league’s decision on whether to open Thursday night to bidders again after this season. League executives will study the package’s ratings, which both NFL and CBS executives expect to be high. CBS is guaranteeing a 12 rating for its Thursday schedule, which would put Thursday just behind NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” schedule, TV’s highest rated prime-time series.

But it’s more than just ratings. The NFL will be looking to see if CBS’s involvement with “Thursday Night Football” will help grow ratings and revenue for NFL Network, which is in nearly 72 million homes.

NFL Network will simulcast the Thursday night games on CBS and has been a big presence in the broadcast network’s promotion of the package. The two channels are sharing talent in front of and behind the cameras.

“Once we first went down this path, there was a bit of misconception that this was a statement that the NFL was abandoning NFL Network,” Rolapp said. “Every part of this relationship is about enhancing the profile of the NFL Network. … CBS has certainly helped deliver on that vision.”

McManus compared the relationship to CBS’s partnership with Turner Sports on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. He said NFL Network executives have been part of every decision, including graphics, animation and production.

The league also will be considering more than just media issues. League executives want to make sure that the quality of the Thursday night games is high. The NFL has heard complaints in years past that the quality of its Thursday games wasn’t as good as the games on Sundays or Mondays because, in part, Thursday games don’t give players enough time to recover from the previous week’s games.

Rolapp said he’s convinced the quality of competition will not suffer.

“There’s no predetermined formula where if we see one thing then we’ll make a decision,” Rolapp said. “That’s not where we are.”