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Volume 23 No. 17
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NFL slate built to succeed: Marquee matchups early in season

Following a season dominated by news of falling TV ratings and declining interest, I paid closer attention than usual to the NFL’s schedule release this year. The league appears to have front-loaded its 2017-18 schedule with marquee games to ensure a fast start, build momentum and post TV ratings jumps.

Here are some areas where I plan to focus this fall.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” remains the league’s top package, so it’s no surprise that it has the strongest schedule. One network executive pointed to the first part of NBC’s schedule, which features intriguing quarterback matchups — Eli Manning vs. Dak Prescott, Aaron Rodgers vs. Matt Ryan, etc. The belief is that stars not only will bring viewers to “Sunday Night Football,” but they will help retain viewers later in the schedule.

Because it has the NFC package, Fox’s Sunday afternoon schedule always seems strong. It looks particularly strong to me this season, thanks in large part to the number of Dallas Cowboys games it has. The Cowboys will anchor seven of Fox’s nine doubleheader weeks this season. That’s important for Fox because the Cowboys are the league’s top TV draw, by far. Last season, for example, Cowboys regular-season games in the second half of the season drew larger TV audiences than the Chicago Cubs’ historic seven-game World Series win.

In lobbying for its “Monday Night Football” schedule, ESPN asked the league for more intradivision games. The network found it difficult to market a game like its Week 9 contest last season between Buffalo and Seattle, two franchises that are hardly rivals. The league responded by giving ESPN nine intradivision games last season. Why does that matter? As one network executive explained, “Anytime you have a division matchup between two teams that are expected to be at least decent, mathematically it’s hard for both of them to be terrible, and that makes ESPN’s schedule better insulated against matchups falling apart than it was last year.”

Dallas, the league’s top TV ratings draw, appears in seven of Fox’s nine doubleheader weeks.

Network executives are not thrilled by the Chargers’ move to the country’s second-biggest media market. Los Angeles now has two teams in the same market that cannot play a 1 p.m. ET home game. The two L.A. teams combined for only three prime-time appearances, which must have created a logistical nightmare. Six Chargers and Rams games will compete against each other head-to-head on CBS and Fox, which is not great for TV ratings in the market. “Until at least one team in L.A. becomes a real contender, the scheduling in L.A. is going to remain a vexing problem,” one network executive said.

I am always interested in the games that the NFL decides to crossflex — i.e., NFC games that appear on CBS or AFC games that move to Fox. It appears that CBS picked up the best crossflex game this season, with the Seahawks-Giants Week 7 matchup.

There’s an interesting change to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” flex schedule this season. If the NFL flexes a CBS or Fox late-season game to NBC, the network that loses the game will get the Sunday night game, regardless of whether it’s an AFC or NFC matchup. This change came about last season, when the NFL flexed a Week 15 Tampa Bay-Dallas game from Fox to NBC. The league then put the original “Sunday Night Football” game — Pittsburgh-Cincinnati — on CBS, since it is a traditional AFC contest. That meant that Fox lost a Cowboys game, and CBS gained an intradivision matchup that rated well.

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.