On the surface, you’d think television networks like “Thursday Night Football.” Even for bad matchups, those games do ratings that should make any network happy.
For example, the Oakland Raiders-Kansas City Chiefs “Thursday Night Football” game on Oct. 19 did 14.38 million viewers according to Deadline.com. The first four games of the World Series, involving two major television markets with a Houston Astros team that had never won a title and a Los Angeles Dodgers team that hadn’t won since 1988, did between 15 and 15.7 million viewers each game, according to Sports Media Watch. Remember when you hear about the NFL’s ratings crisis, it’s all relative. The NFL does monster viewership numbers.
But the extra games on CBS are hurting the overall ratings on Sunday, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus believes. So are early-morning London games, McManus told the Wall Street Journal, via Darren Rovell of ESPN. McManus might also not be acknowledging that his issues with “TNF” is probably related to cost more than anything else. Last year CBS and NBC paid a combined $450 million annually for “Thursday Night Football.” That contract expires after this season, so we could see “TNF” go away soon.
Fans or media can complain about the quality of Thursday night games, and that doesn’t really matter as long as people are tuning in (and they are). But when a television partner isn’t happy with the product? That’s another issue.
The Thursday night games usually aren’t great, because it’s impossible for NFL teams to get ready mentally or physically for a game in three days. With tired players and basic game plans, we don’t see the best teams have to offer. While we have had a few good “Thursday Night Football” games recently — Rams-49ers and Chiefs-Raiders this season were fun games — for the most part those games would always be better on Sunday. If television partners don’t want Thursday night games, the NFL would have to consider dumping them.
London games probably shouldn’t happen at all, because it upsets the balance of the NFL schedule by making some teams give up a home game to play there, but they’re not going away because the league wants to grow internationally. There’s no benefit to American fans for London games that start in a normal 1 p.m. Eastern time slot. The early starts at least were something, but apparently CBS thinks it would be better for overall ratings to lump them in with the regular schedule.
Part of the reason the NFL is so popular is the level of time commitment involved. It’s easier to devote 17 Sundays to the NFL than it is to follow a baseball team for 162 games or an NBA game for 82. That’s why the NFL became appointment viewing even with an audience that rarely sits down to watch anything for three hours anymore. London games and Thursday night games might spread the NFL too thin and make the games seem like less of an event. On weeks when there has been an early London game, there have been six windows for NFL football. Some people like that. CBS apparently doesn’t.
And if this is it for a full season of Thursday night games, it won’t be because of the quality of games or player safety. It will be because the networks don’t believes there’s a good return on investment anymore.
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