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CBS, NFL Thursday Night Football deal unlike anything we've seen in sports

The CBS-NFL deal for Thursday Night Football is experimental in nature with much to gain for both sides.

(Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports)

The $300 million CBS-NFL deal for Thursday Night Football is unlike any broadcasting deal we’ve seen in sports and making it work, according to new NFL Network Chief and NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp, is the league’s highest priority.

Under the deal, CBS will air eight early-season games and the NFL Network will televise eight-late season games. CBS will produce all 16 games with its broadcasting team, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, and its own production team. In other words, CBS will be producing games for their own network, as well as those later games that are solely broadcasted on the NFL Network.

Additionally, each Thursday Night Football broadcast will conclude with a live post-game show airing both on CBS and NFL Network that will include a mixture of talent from CBS Sports and the NFL Network.

According to Sports Business Daily, the NFL would only accept deals for Thursday Night Football with the following terms:

  • One-year commitment
  • All games would have to be simulcast on the NFL Network
  • The NFL Network would keep at least six games exclusively

The one-year deal signed with CBS also includes an option to extend for the 2015 season by the NFL.

The fact that the NFL will simulcast the same game on two different networks for an experimental one-year period makes this arrangement completely unique in sports broadcasting and intriguing in how the two networks plan to fulfill their obligations.

(Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports)

NFL Network Struggles and Turnaround

Turning 10 years old last November, the NFL Network’s decade-long dance into broadcasting and original programming has been anything but smooth.

By 2009, the NFL Network was only delivered to 35 million households six and a half years after launch, due largely to stalemates in negotiations with prominent cable carriers like Time Warner and Cablevision.

During this time, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that the network was losing “about the same amount of money…as NFL Europe was when the owners pulled the plug.”

In 2012, the turnaround came when the NFL Network expanded their broadcast schedule from eight to 13 games. By 2013, major carrier holdouts finally agreed to terms and the NFL Network expanded its reach to 69.7 million homes.

Now, the NFL Network sits in a strong position and commands an average fee per subscriber of $1.34 per month, second highest among all cable properties according to SNL Kagan August 2013 data.

This places the NFL Network ahead of cable juggernaut TNT ($1.29 per sub/mo.) and the non-ad supported Disney Channel ($1.15 per sub/mo.), and miles ahead of other professional league networks, including the Golf Channel ($0.31 per sub/mo.), NHL Network ($0.29 per sub/mo.), NBA TV ($0.27 per sub/mo.) and MLB Network ($0.23 per sub/mo.).

(Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)
(Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)

CBS Wants to “Win Thursday Nights”

The NFL and CBS are familiar partners but when it came time to solicit bids from major broadcasters NBC, ABC, FOX, and Turner, CBS pulled out all the stops.

According to CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, getting the Thursday Night Football package with the NFL was CBS’ number one priority and McManus made sure to include CBS President and CEO Les Moonves in every meeting with the NFL.

Moonves shared the potential of such a partnership, telling Bloomberg Teleivision that securing the Thursday night NFL package will “allow [CBS] to win Thursday night.”

Meanwhile, CBS was the most attractive partner given what they were offering the league.

The NFL saw an opportunity for a wide range of cross-promotion for its own NFL Network across all of CBS’ properties including CBS’ national broadcast network, the CBS Sports Network, Showtime, CBS’ owned and operated local stations, CBS Interactive (which include all of CBS’ digital properties), and CBS’ own radio and outdoor syndication network.

The league simply couldn’t get that kind of exposure for its Thursday night games from the other broadcasters. Nor was that kind of exposure offered by anyone but CBS.

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

How Will It All Work

The unique character of the deal opens up many questions, like who will tune into the NFL Network when a game is already being broadcasted on CBS (“over-the-air”)? How will Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, and the CBS studio crews balance Thursday and Sunday games each week? From a sales perspective, will all of CBS-sold ad inventory be shown on the NFL Network simulcast, and how will this affect the NFL Network’s sales package with its advertising partners going forward?

It’s too early to tell which side—CBS or the NFL Network—got the better end of the deal.

Sure, the NFL Network shifted much of the production burden onto CBS and stands to get fantastic promotional exposure for its network using CBS properties as resources, which can ultimately translate into higher advertising and affiliate broadcasting revenues for the network.

But if the one, possibly two year partnership for Thursday Night football places CBS in the pole position for long-term Thursday Night football negotiations beginning in 2015, CBS becomes the clear-cut winner and the unquestioned leader in television’s holy grail—Thursday night primetime—a spot they won’t soon relinquish so long as they are the NFL’s preferred partner for Thursday Night Football.

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