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Why Thursday Night Football isn’t going anywhere anytime soon

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday Mookie took a look at the report that the NFL will be tweaking the way it handles alternate uniforms, and potentially getting away from the color rush uniforms. Many fans were relieved to hear this news, while others were disappointed as a result of their enjoyment of the novelty of the uniforms. However, the news once again brought about calls for the league to get rid of Thursday Night Football altogether, but the simple fact of the matter is that it can very easily be boiled down to an easy answer.

That simply is not going to happen. Thursday Night Football is not going anywhere anytime soon, and the reason is money.

In spite of the sometimes horrid matchups, like say a Week 15 meeting between the 4-9 Denver Broncos and the 3-10 Indianapolis Colts, TNF is one of the most watched regular broadcasts in all of television. Including the NFL kickoff special which takes place on a Thursday, there were twelve Thursday night games which were broadcast on either NBC or CBS in addition to the NFL Network, and ten of those games ranked in the top 100 of all U.S. television broadcasts for 2017. Just to show how much fans tune in to the NFL, here’s where those ten games ranked during 2017.

Where 2017 TNF games ranked in the Top 100 TV Broadcasts

Week Date Matchup Ranking in Top 100
Week Date Matchup Ranking in Top 100
Week 1 September 7 Kansas City - New England 15
Week 12 November 23 New York Giants - Washington 33
Week 13 November 30 Washington - Dallas 45
Week 5 October 5 New England - Tampa Bay 49
Week 4 September 28 Chicago - Green Bay 62
Week 14 December 7 New Orleans - Atlanta 63
Week 6 October 12 Philadelphia - Carolina 64
Week 7 October 19 Kansas City - Oakland 65
Week 11 November 16 Tennessee - Pittsburgh 81
Week 10 November 9 Seattle - Arizona 98
Week 8 October 26 Miami - Baltimore N/A
Week 15 December 14 Denver - Indianapolis N/A

That makes TNF one of the most watched things on TV, and that makes it extremely extremely valuable to both broadcasters and the league. That played a major role in the contract that Fox and the NFL signed back in January to broadcast Thursday games for the next five seasons. Fox agreed to pay the NFL $550 million per year to broadcast eleven games per season. That’s $50 million per game.

With reports that NFL ratings are in decline, the fact that Fox was willing to outbid NBC and CBS seems to give a glimpse of how valuable the NFL is to broadcasters. For example, in 2016 and 2017 CBS and NBC paid a combined $45 million per game, and in 2014 and 2015 CBS paid $37.5 million per game. That’s an increase of over 33% in just three seasons for the broadcast of just a single game on the NFL schedule.

So, while some may argue that the anthem protests have had a negative effect on NFL tv ratings, the simple fact of the matter is that in a time when broadcasts ratings are down across the board, those programs that do draw viewers are even more valuable for the networks. The result is that the NFL product becomes even more valuable to viewers.

In addition, that $550 million per season that the league will generate comes just from the Fox broadcasts of the eleven games covered by the contract. The total slate of Thursday games is 18 games, with the NFL Network retaining the exclusive rights to the other seven games. Thus, between the contract with Fox and the advertising sales the NFL Network can do on its own, things start to add up, and that’s before digital streaming rights revenues get added in.

In 2016 Twitter paid $10 million for the right to stream certain of the Thursday Night games, and because Twitter is a publicly traded company, it then disclosed that it sold $50 million in advertising for the games it streamed. That led to Amazon reportedly paying $50 million dollars for the streaming rights to the 2017 games. So, between increasing numbers of cord cutters coupled with the increasing ability of companies to sell digital advertising for streaming content, by the time the current CBA is up in 2020, it would not be hard to imagine the revenues just from Thursday Night Football approaching, if not exceeding, a billion dollars.

Thus, even though some Thursday games may get ugly, and the Week 10 game the Seattle Seahawks played against the Arizona Cardinals may have been the last time fans see Kam Chancellor or Richard Sherman on the field, Thursday games aren’t going anywhere. They are a great source of revenue for the league and for the players, and it would be very difficult for either side to give up the money that the Thursday games generate.