The NFL’s NFL Network is using its new rights to 13 Thursday night games to power its $1.1 billion-a-year pay-TV channel to tearing away viewers from the major broadcast networks on what traditionally had been their best night.
“You can’t go to Blockbuster and rent tonight’s game…If you like it, you stay,” Steve Bornstein, EVP/media at the NFL Network, told Bloomberg Businessweek. He previously turned ESPN into a cable-sports behemoth and profit machine for Disney. “That was the concept behind ESPN 30 years ago. We’ve just taken it with the most popular content on the planet, NFL football.”
By reserving Thursday games for the NFL Network, the league is forgoing an estimated $1.45 billion a year in revenue it likely could charge other media outlets for rights to those midweek matches. The NFL is betting it can wring out even more revenue over the long term by showing the games on its own. The league had aired eight Thursday night games on the NFL Network late in the season every year since 2006. But in 2011, when the league negotiated new contracts with CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN for $6 billion annually, it added five more games to its own Thursday night lineup. Now, with scheduled match-ups from September to December, the channel airs games in three-quarters of the 17-week NFL season.
The network’s reach was bolstered this season after the NFL signed deals with Cablevision Systems and Time Warner Cable that added the channel to more than 11 million pay-TV homes, a roughly 20% increase. In all, NFL Network is now available in 78.3 million U.S. homes.
Thursday Night Football is averaging more than 7 million viewers a night this season, Nielsen data show—a number Bornstein says will grow as Time Warner and Cablevision subscribers discover the channel. That puts a hurt on the broadcast networks’ comedies and dramas, says Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch told the mag. The 18-to-49 audience for every major network except for CBS has shrunk on Thursdays compared with a year earlier. “It’s contributing to dramatic weakness in prime time.”
The NFL Network and its sister RedZone Network, which continuously flips between live scoring drives of multiple games on Sunday afternoons, generate subscriber fees of 95¢ a month for the league, SNL Kagan estimates. That comes to $890 million in annual fees from cable, satellite, and telecom video operators, making the NFL Network second only to ESPN among sports networks. In addition, NFL Network’s ad sales will exceed $200 million this year, more than double the $99.6 million in 2011, predicts SNL.
RBR-TVBR observation: Let’s face it—NBC’s bread and butter this year was based on Sunday Night Football success, among other things. If NFL Network moves into more games as well down the road there could be real problems for broadcast TV. It will likely depend on cable carriage and viewers interest in the network during non-live game programming.