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Volume 21 No. 17
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ABC likely to join in bidding for ‘TNF’ games

Both CBS and NBC saw double-digit percentage drops in ratings for “Thursday Night Football.”
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
ABC Sports has emerged as a surprise bidder for the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” package, according to several NFL and media sources. The NFL has not yet received a formal bid, which would come via ESPN as Disney owns both networks and ESPN produces sports events on ABC.

But the league clearly expects a bid from ABC, along with incumbent “TNF” broadcasters, CBS and NBC — both of whom have indicated to the league that they will bid for the package. Fox also was setting up a bid for “TNF” — a package that has incurred the wrath of fans, players and television executives over the past several years due to complaints of a condensed schedule leading to bad games, more injuries and lower ratings.

The deadline to submit bids to the league was last week, but sources say bids still will be submitted after the deadline expires.

Amazon Stats

* Biggest “TNF” viewership by state
1. California
2. Texas
3. New York
4. Florida
5. Washington

* Biggest “TNF” viewership by country (outside U.S.)
1. Mexico
2. Germany
3. South Korea
4. Brazil
5. United Kingdom
6. Japan

CBS and NBC pay a combined $450 million per year for the current package, which has seen ratings drop double-digit percentages over the past two years. CBS averaged 14.1 million viewers for its five games, down 4 percent from last season and down 20 percent from 2015. NBC averaged 13.5 million viewers for its five “TNF” games, down 21 percent from its first season with the package.

ABC bid on the Thursday package in 2014, but that bid was not competitive and CBS ended up with the package. Two years ago, the last time the “TNF” package was open, ABC showed initial interest, but dropped out of the process early.

John Skipper’s surprising resignation as ESPN president last month led some to question whether ABC would move forward with a bid. Ultimately, Disney and ESPN executives decided to do so, though it is not known whether their bid will be competitive.

The decision to submit a bid for ABC instead of ESPN is happening for a few reasons. The NFL has made it clear that it wants its “TNF” package on broadcast television, not cable. But ABC’s programming strategy also has undergone a change. Years ago, it walked away from the live sports business, opting to put almost all of its sports programming on ESPN. But since then, the broadcast network has found ratings success with college football on Saturday nights. Network executives also have been happy with its schedule of Saturday night NBA regular-season games, which it started last year.

If ABC’s bid is successful, it would mark the first time ABC will carry a regular season package of NFL games since 2005, the final year of “Monday Night Football” on broadcast television. ABC, of course, was the first TV network to carry NFL games in prime time when it launched “Monday Night Football” in 1970.

The league has told potential TV bidders that NFL Network needs to carry a minimum of seven games exclusively to comply with its pay-TV affiliate deals. Plus, the league will sell streaming rights separately to have what the league calls a tri-cast with a broadcast TV partner, NFL Network and a digital platform such as Twitter or Amazon carrying the games.

The NFL expects a lot of digital interest in its “TNF” streaming package. Amazon carried the games last season, and Twitter had them the season before. Amazon refuses to say whether it will bid to keep the rights, but judging by comments from its top sports executive last week, it seems likely to be involved in the bidding.

“We’re still learning a lot,” said Jim DeLorenzo, Amazon’s head of sports. “Having ‘Thursday Night Football’ on Amazon was great. We loved being able to partner with the NFL.”

It’s easy to see why Amazon was so high on the package. Amazon averaged 310,000 viewers for its 11 NFL games, based on an average-minute audience. The previous season, Twitter averaged 265,000 viewers. Amazon’s viewers watched for an average of 63 minutes.

Facebook and Twitter are expected to bid on the rights, as well.

League executives have told the digital companies that they could submit bids for the entire package, which would mean Amazon could carry the games exclusively on Amazon Prime, produce them and sell them to affiliates in the local markets. It’s not clear if any of the digital companies planned to bid on the whole package.