New Thursday NFL Package Sidelined

Commissioner doubts talks will resume next year

A clutch of cable networks was in hot pursuit of a new eight-game NFL TV rights package, but the league has faked its suitors out of their jocks with a surprise reverse.

Earlier this summer, in the midst of the lockout that threatened to put the kibosh on the 2011-12 season, the NFL began under-the-radar talks on a new fall Thursday night schedule. And while Comcast/NBCUniversal, Fox Sports, and Turner Sports expressed keen interest in the new bundle, the bidding process has been put on hold, a casualty perhaps of the NFL’s failure to get the players’ union to agree to an expanded season.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed that the eight-game slate has been sidelined for the immediate future but did not offer an estimate for when talks might resume. “It’s not likely that we would do it in the next year,” Goodell said, shortly after the NFL locked in an eight-year, $15.5 billion extension of ESPN’s Monday Night Football contract. “We’re going to continue our discussions with our current partners and evaluate aspects of our new labor agreement as part of that.”

Network sports chiefs say the NFL’s decision to hold off on a formal bidding process came as a surprise. “I was sure that things would start heating up once the ESPN deal was out of the way,” said one programming executive who asked not to be named. “My understanding was we’d resume talks as soon as that was off the books and that someone would have a deal by early, mid-October.”

Goodell said the NFL ultimately will “make what we expect to be the best decision for our fans and for our 32 clubs [and] for our partners,” and while that may seem like one of the commissioner’s characteristically unenlightening statements, one network boss says it actually suggests a significant priority shift. “The way it looks now, the league will probably want to close out its renewals [with CBS, NBC, and Fox] before they come back to Thursday night,” the executive said. “It’s a little disappointing, but this is the NFL. When they’re ready to sit down and talk, we’ll be right there with them.”

A source with ties to the league says early discussions about the Thursday night bundle were conducted under the assumption that the NFL would be able to coax the players into accepting an 18-game regular season schedule, but that idea was dead on arrival. The two additional weeks of football would have made it possible to put together a new TV package without taking Sunday afternoon games from CBS and Fox.

As was the case with the ESPN agreement, the three broadcast deals are set to expire in 2013. Fox’s current pact is worth $720.3 million per year, while CBS’ is for $619.8 million. NBC pays $603 million per season for the rights to air Sunday Night Football.

“The NFL doesn’t want to lead things off with [CBS Sports chairman] Sean McManus or [Fox Sports chairman] David Hill by saying, ‘We want more money, and oh, by the way, we’re taking some of your games,’” said one sports TV executive. “Until they get all those legacy deals squared away, Thursday night is going to have to wait.”