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Volume 21 No. 30
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NFL expects decision on Thursdays by early 2016

NFL says price tag is just one consideration as networks line up for package

The NFL has told networks looking to land the rights to “Thursday Night Football” that it plans to make a decision by the first quarter of 2016.

While league officials have not put a specific deadline on making a decision, they have told TV executives that they want to make sure the winning bidder has enough time to sell advertising and create marketing campaigns for the 2016-17 NFL season, which would be the first year of a new deal.

“I can’t imagine that anything would happen during the season or before Super Bowl 50, because we’re all so involved in those two projects,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “We haven’t heard a specific timetable. When the NFL wants to hear our proposal and presentation, we’ll be standing by and ready to give that.”

CBS now has the Thursday night NFL package.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The NFL and its players have suffered through many public missteps during the offseason — from Deflategate to player behavior to concussion storylines. But the league is in prime position to bring in a huge increase in rights fees from TV networks competing to carry its highly rated games.

All of the broadcast networks — ESPN/ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — have told the league they are interested in getting the Thursday night package, which currently is carried by CBS. Turner Sports also has told the league that it plans to make an aggressive bid to bring “Thursday Night Football” over to cable, according to several sources.

But NFL executives repeatedly have said that the package’s price tag is just one of many factors it will consider in deciding which media company will carry “Thursday Night Football.”

“Taking the biggest check has never been the driving force in using this package,” said Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s executive vice president of media. “We want to use it for more than that. We also want to use it for strategic purposes.”

Privately, network executives say they are expecting the NFL to cut a deal that syncs up with its other TV deals, running though 2021 or 2022. Publicly, NFL executives say they have not settled on how long they want the deal to be.

Some networks have looked into sweetening their bids by agreeing to take an equity stake in NFL Network, sources said. It’s not known whether such a move would be part of a formal bid.

Also remaining to be seen is whether any Silicon Valley companies show an interest. This round of talks will come after the Oct. 25 Bills-Jaguars game that will be streamed by Yahoo. If that game — a Sunday morning game between two non-marquee teams — pulls decent traffic, digital companies such as Yahoo or Google could show more of an interest in the Thursday package.

The league clearly wants as many bidders as possible to drive up its price. Plus, NFL executives have said they like the idea of a digital-rights deal that would be global.

“Everything is on the table for us,” Rolapp said. “The majority of our media rights are wrapped up for the foreseeable future. Thursdays for us is about preparing ourselves for the future and what that would mean. As a result, clearly we will want to be fairly compensated for the package, but there are other factors that go into it.”

Networks view this package as the last chance to make a big splash in sports rights for several years. Other than the Big Ten Conference, which is expected to negotiate a media rights deal early next year, other major sports rights are tied up well into the next decade.

The NFL’s deal with ESPN runs through 2021; its deals with CBS, Fox and NBC run through 2022.

CBS has been happy with the Thursday night package, which it picked up for $275 million in year one last year and for $300 million for this season.

“The promotion and the production and the branding partnership has really been good for both the NFL and CBS,” McManus said. “The NFL Network has continued to grow, which was an important priority going into this deal. The league is very pleased with the way that we present the product and promote the product. Our proposal would be to continue the momentum on CBS.”