Thursday Night Football (TNF) is widely regarded as the least valuable NFL television property. That isn’t stopping Fox from outbidding CBS and NBC for the rights to the games. Fox reportedly outbid its competitors this week, even though CBS and NBC said they lost money on their current TNF deal. This makes sense for Fox more than any other network.
Before we get to Fox, ABC/ESPN and Turner did not bid on Thursday Night rights. Turner has no recent history with the NFL — they have not not broadcasted a game in 20 years. NFL television has changed a bit since then. There’s no reason to get involved with a property while ratings are dropping. That’s a lot of operational planning and working with the league to figure everything out while also spending a lot of money on something that isn’t directly profitable. Plus they have the NBA. ABC/ESPN is still smarting from their Monday night deal. They are paying $1.9 billion a year for 16 games. That’s a lot of cash to pay for what has been poor matchups on Monday night. They’d be getting even worse games on Thursday. Factor in ESPN’s struggles with cord cutters and losing subscription fees and it made sense for the worldwide leader to stay out of the bidding war. Plus, they also already have the NBA.
The NFL knows what it is going to get out of NBC and CBS. They are the current league partners for Thursday night. Those companies know what they are doing. They have built out production schedules and loaded up on talent to help ease the burden of producing what the NFL considers a marquee product — since TNF games are nationally televised.
Fox obviously has the capabilities. They’ve been working with the NFL for years. The question remains why Fox would want to outbid CBS and NBC when they know those companies aren’t turning a profit on their deals. Well, there’s obviously a halo effect. Fox will be able to increase ratings on shoulder programming as well as promote other shows on the network. Ratings for the NFL may be down, but TNF pulls in higher viewership numbers than anything else on television. It’s essentially buying an audience for interstitial advertising and self-promotion.
Fox also has a bit of money to throw around. Disney’s pending purchase of a bunch of Fox properties for $52.4 billion dollars This included multiple regional sports networks. Fox’s sports influence is now limited to Fox broadcast, FS1, and FS2. FS1 may be growing in viewership, but it still needs a boost. FS2 is impossible to find on almost any cable package because it’s buried somewhere in the channel guide. Fox broadcast is still in a strong position with MLB, Golf, college football and Sunday NFL, but adding TNF gives them another offering.
Since no one knows exactly what is involved in the Fox deal, there is a chance FS1 has a spot as well. Fox should make that sticking point. They are outbidding their competitors for something that currently isn’t profitable. FS1 needs to get some content. FS1 needs to get some NFL Football games. FS1 need this programming to build an audience. This deal is the easiest way to do so. Again, ratings are down, but the sheer number of viewers could make the deal worth it to build brand association and familiarity. FS1’s highest-rated program ever was the 2017 ALCS Game 7. At its peak, that game drew 11 million – plus viewers. It averaged 9 million viewers. TNF games get between 10-12 million easily. It’s all relative.
Taking everything into account, this is a smart move by Fox. They may lose money on the actual programming but they have some extra cash to throw around right now. The NFL may be losing viewers overall, but it’s still — far and away — the most watched content on television. The deal gives Fox halo benefits and could help grow the audience of FS1. The NFL may not take the deal. They feel comfortable with their current partners, so Fox had to step up and outbid its competitors. Now we’ll see if the NFL takes money over familiarity.