NFL Creates New Thursday Night Package

The eight-game programming slate's price tag could reach the $600 million mark

The National Football League is shopping a new package of Thursday night games that would add approximately 26 hours of prime-time action to the broadcast schedule.

The early-season, eight-game slate would set the table for the existing package of Thursday night games televised by the NFL Network in November and December. And while sources say the NFL hasn’t set a price, the new package could fetch as much as $75 million per game, or $600 million for the half-season run.

While a deal won’t be reached before the NFL labor dispute is resolved—and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling late last week in favor of the league could stall negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement—sources say a serious dialogue on the rights package is likely to begin in August. The eight games would be culled from CBS and Fox’s Sunday afternoon NFL schedules. Under the terms of its rights deals, the NFL has the option to pluck as many as eight games from each broadcaster.

Handicappers see Turner Broadcasting and Comcast-NBCU as the most well-positioned suitors, although Fox Sports may put in a bid on behalf of FX. Turner has been champing at the bit to get football back, having televised a Sunday night NFL showcase on TNT from 1990-97.

Comcast is sizing up the Thursday night package for Versus. On an acquisitive tear since the NBCU deal closed, Comcast last month forked over $4.38 billion for the rights for the 2014-20 Olympics, outbidding Fox by nearly $1 billion. In April, the company re-upped with the NHL in a 10-year, $2 billion deal.

As always, ESPN is likely to throw in a bid, if only to jack up the price for its competitors. But a win would force the sports giant to move the bulk of its Thursday night college football games to sister network ESPN2.

The new Thursday schedule could start as early as next year, giving all parties a chance to work out the kinks before the CBS, NBC, and Fox contracts expire in 2013.

If nothing else, the bonus revenue generated will help offset the inevitable compromises that will come with the new CBA. “That’s a big part of what’s driving this,” said one network executive. “It’ll help soothe a lot of hurt feelings on both sides. Money can do that.”