It was about fifty years ago when Willie Nelson sang:
“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…”
About 5 years ago, a narrative began that football was going to go the way of the dodo bird because mothers would not let their babies grow up to be football players for fear of CTE. I never bought into that narrative and I think it is now evident that the demise of football in the US is highly unlikely for the next decade or so. The NFL and its “broadcast partners” – now to include Amazon and other streaming services – have signed a 10-year deal that will drop a total of $113B into the NFL’s coffers. Those “broadcast partners” do not see the NFL drying up and blowing away, and nor do I.
Moreover, roughly half of the money involved in those TV deals will flow to NFL players per the terms of the CBA between the league and the players’ union. That means there are significant financial incentives for kids to aspire to be part of the NFL for at least another decade. If indeed “money talks”, the dollars involved here are most assertive in declaring the continued existence of the NFL and a willing labor force for the enterprise.
These new broadcast deals between the networks and the NFL begin in 2023; analysts say that the new deals cost the networks twice what the current deals cost; I assume that is a correct analysis. When I first heard that the NFL was going to ask for that kind of an increase, I wondered why the networks would accede to such an increase. However, the negotiations went smoothly and quickly so the networks must see value there. Here are data:
- Eight of the top ten most watched TV programs in 2020 were football games (7 were NFL games and the other was the CFP championship game).
- The two “non-football programs” on the list for 2020 ranked 7th and 10th.
- Notwithstanding reports that Super Bowl ratings were down for 2021, the game between the Bucs and the Chiefs had 96 million viewers. By comparison, The Oscars in 2020 had 23 million viewers.
I have said for years that the NFL and the NFLPA need to work together because their joint mission is to produce the most popular and most lucrative television series ever. As long as the league and the union keep the wheels rolling, the dollars will continue to flow. The two sides may squabble over the “revenue split” or over some aspects of “working conditions” but it is hard for me to imagine any single issue on either side of the bargaining table that is worth turning off the spigot there.
So, is there anything new in the broadcast rights deal to justify doubling the cost to the networks? Here are some of the provisions that have been reported; you make the call:
- There will be 2 games on the Saturday of the final week of the regular season on ESPN. That will happen this year before the new deal goes into effect. Importantly, the NFL intends to put “playoff relevant” games in at least one of those Saturday time slots meaning the NFL is going to flex-schedule games from day-to-day in addition to flexing games from a time slot on Sunday to another time slot on Sunday.
- Those Saturday games will become a fixture in the new scheduling arrangements for the new TV deals AND there will be flexing opportunities for ESPN and its Monday Night Football package. Flexing for Monday Night Football was not available in the current deal.
- ESPN will get three annual Monday Night Football double-headers. Currently, there is a MNF double-header for the opening week of the season but none to follow after that. Starting in 2023, there will be three such scheduled events.
- FOX chose not to bid to continue with Thursday Night Football, but Amazon jumped in with both feet. FOX will continue through 2023 and Amazon will stream those telecasts as well; then it is all Amazon after that. I also read a report that said if Amazon grows the Thursday Night Football audience sufficiently, Amazon could claim a wildcard playoff game that would stream exclusively on Amazon.
- ESPN+ and Paramount+ and Peacock streaming services will all participate to a small extent in the new deals. ESPN+ will have exclusive rights to one of the NFL’s “International Games”; Peacock also gets an exclusive game for its service.
- ABC will get 2 Super Bowl game telecasts between now and 2033. ABC and ESPN are part of Disney Corp; the NFL does not want to put the Super Bowl on a cable network so count ABC’s turn in the barrel here as a tip of the hat to ESPN.
Someone needs to wave a tiny caution flag here. There is a small measure of danger here involving over-exposure. Adding Saturday games and adding a 17th game to the regular season and adding Monday double-headers will put more games on as national events. I use the word “event” there very purposefully. I believe that one of the fundamental reasons that professional football overtook MLB as the “nation’s pastime” is this one:
- There are 162 baseball games in a season (2430 games in total) so that any given game is an “occurrence”.
- There are only 16 NFL games in a regular season (256 games in total), and they are spaced apart by a week meaning that each game is an “event”.
The NFL does not want to over-expose its product and lose the aura of “event-ness” for its regular season games. The guys in the executive suites need to maintain awareness that every good thing can be overdone. I am not predicting the demise of professional football here nor am I hoping for such an outcome. But someone somewhere needs to think about that issue to make sure it never becomes a real issue.
Finally, let me close with an observation made by H.L. Mencken that relates to my tiny caution flag here:
“An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………