Could NFL 'Thursday Night Football' Gain Viewers Next Season?

The NFL recently confirmed speculation it is seeking a partner to air "Thursday Night Football" in tandem with NFL Network next season. Since the league's premium channel began broadcasting the games in 2006, millions of cable and over-the-air viewers have been without access. 

If the NFL does sell Thursday night rights to another network, it will ultimately be a win for fans. I'll explain why.

The bidders
As of this writing, Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ABC, CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) , 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ: FOX  ) , and Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) NBCUniversal are all rumored to be bidding on the games, in addition to dark horse Time Warner  (NYSE: TWX  ) subsidiary Turner.

CBS Sports reports the NFL is searching for a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $800 million, and according to John Ourand of Sports Business Daily, the league would like the games to be simulcast on NFL Network.

Peer comparison
As Ourand points out, "The quality of the Thursday night matchups generally is the weakest among all of the NFL's TV partners," an insight that is illustrated by television ratings.

Package TV viewers per game, 2013
NBC Sunday Night Football 21.7 million
NFL on Fox 21.2 million
NFL on CBS 18.7 million
ESPN Monday Night Football 13.7 million 
Thursday Night Football 8.0 million 

Source: Sports Illustrated.

If CBS Sports' estimate is to be believed, the rights to "Thursday Night Football" may be cheaper than their peers.

Package Cost of rights per year
ESPN Monday Night Football $1.9 billion
Sunday NFL on Fox* $1.1 billion
Sunday NFL on CBS** $1.0 billion
NBC Sunday Night Football $950 million
Thursday Night Football $800 million

Sources: Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. *Mostly NFC noon and afternoon games. **Mostly AFC noon and afternoon games.

The big question
Still, if I'm an executive contemplating this deal, there'd be one thing on my mind: Can an over-the-air station bring more viewers to "Thursday Night Football" than NFL Network did last season?

By definition, most of the bidding networks reach significantly more viewers than NFL Network.

Network Total U.S. households reached
NBC 112.1 million
ABC 112.1 million
CBS 112.1 million
Fox 112.1 million
TBS 99.2 million
ESPN 97.7 million
NFL Network 70.9 million

Sources: TV By The Numbers, media estimates.

According to the data, cable channels like TBS and ESPN reach about 40% more households than NFL Network. If either of these stations wins the bidding process and is able to convince the league not to require a weekly simulcast, it would be rational to expect  "Thursday Night Football" to average 11 million viewers a game.

Over-the-air stations, on the other hand, collect about 60% more eyes than NFL Network. If "Thursday Night Football" and its 8 million viewers per game are broadcast on a "Big Four" network like NBC, ABC, CBS, or Fox, it's theoretically possible that viewers per game could spike 60% higher with no simulcast, to just under 13 million. This is nearly the same amount of viewers averaged by ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

The caveat
Of course, if the games are simulcast, this would put a dent in these estimates. Some viewers who already watch NFL Network would stick with that channel, rather than move to the winning network.

A "Big Four" network would need at least 40% of NFL Network viewers to switch over to its broadcast of "Thursday Night Football" to maintain last year's average of 8 million. If it can capture half of NFL Network's viewers, its per game average should come close to 9 million.

Likewise, if a cable channel like TBS or ESPN were to show Thursday night games, it would need at least 60% of NFL Network viewers to switch over to its broadcast to maintain 8 million viewers per game. Any less, and the winning cable network would simply not have enough households to match last year's viewership.

Source: NFL.com.

Going forward 
These numbers explain why the bidding networks are likely pushing for exclusive broadcasting rights to "Thursday Night Football." If the games are simulcast, it becomes much more difficult to boost viewership because some will choose to keep watching NFL Network.

Going forward, it would make sense for a "Big Four" network to assume a viewership bump of about 60% if last year's 13-game format is used again, with no simulcast provision. If the schedule is extended to a full 17 games, a rights deal worth at least $1 billion isn't out of the question.

In the scenario that Thursday night games are simulcast, the winning network will likely have a strategy to capture as many NFL Network viewers as possible. Such a plan could include exclusive pre-game analysis and mobile content, or even the rescheduling of a primetime show immediately before the "Thursday Night Football" broadcast.

John Ourand's point mentioned above is also valid: Thursday night games typically feature lower-quality matchups than other slots, which means viewership might not spike as high as the numbers suggest. If the league promised to schedule better Thursday night matchups in the future, it could sweeten a rights deal with a major network.  

Most think the winner of the bidding war should be revealed by springtime, so even if your team isn't in the Super Bowl, there's one date you can look forward to.

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