The NFL’s package of Thursday night games isn’t going away. Instead, it might be turning up on a broadcast network that got out of football after dominating the game in prime-time for 35 years.
Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, is considering whether to bid on the package that has been divvied up between CBS and NBC the past two seasons, Sports Business Daily reported. It would place the games on ABC, bringing prime-time NFL back to the network for the first time since 2005, when “Monday Night Football” moved to ESPN.
Nearly two years ago, NBC and CBS reached agreement on a two-year, $900-million deal for Thursday night games. That is now expiring along with Amazon’s $50 million package to stream games for the 2017 season. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the owner of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.) Presently, ABC is the only one of the four major broadcast networks without a prime-time NFL game. Its Thursday night offering would feature ESPN talent and branding, but would mark the return to the network that revolutionized prime-time sports broadcasts as well as giving Disney two prime-time games a week.
Although the NFL’s ratings were down overall for the 2017 season, it remains a juggernaut for the networks. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” remained the No. 1 show in Neilsen ratings, edging “The Big Bang Theory” (average number of viewers: 18,578,000 to 18,523,000). Viewership was down from 2016’s 19.3 million average. Eight of the top 10 single telecasts were NFL games (with the Oscar and Grammy awards coming in at Nos. 5 and 9, respectively), with Super Bowl LI No. 1.
For Disney, there are a number of questions concerning its reported interest in a prime-time network game. At a time when ESPN is laying off large numbers of workers, it must weigh a big expenditure that would get ABC back in the game against network ratings that are sagging overall and the evidence that the NFL is still a winner. The Thursday package remains popular with viewers, if not with players.
“There was guys dropping down on both side with serious [and] minor injuries,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said after a brutal Seahawks-Cardinals game in November. “We play a very physical game, a very physical sport, and to ask us to turn around and be ready after Sunday to turn around and have our bodies okay on that Thursday, it’s really tough to do. I hope the league is watching. Hopefully they’ll look at it and see what happens and change this format.”
Last year, Richard Sherman of the Seahawks broke down what a typical week in the life of an NFL player looks like — and compared it to a week that has a Thursday night game. Playing four days after a Sunday game, “your body,” he wrote on the Players Tribune, “isn’t ready. You’re still sore from Sunday’s game. You’re going to go out there and compete and give everything you have, because that’s what you do. But your body just won’t have as much to give as it would have had on a full week’s rest.”
That translates into games that may not be competitive. “We’ve seen blowouts, sloppy play and games that have been almost unwatchable — and it’s not the players’ faults. Their bodies just aren’t ready to play. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Cowboys-Vikings game a couple of weeks ago was the best ‘TNF’ game we’ve seen this season. You know why? Because they both played on Thanksgiving the week before, so they each had a full week off.”
But Thursday night football isn’t going anywhere and it just might turn up on ABC.
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