Last week's announcements about the NFL inking nine-year, multi-billion dollar, multimedia rights renewals with CBS, Fox and NBC were mostly about Sundays. But the potential for additional game action on Thursday nights on NFL Network was in the huddle as well.
Brian Rolapp, COO of NFL Media, in an interview with Multichannel News, confirmed the new contracts give the league "the ability to put more games on NFL Network. It reaffirms the league's commitment and is vote of a confidence for the network. How many more games has yet to be determined, but it will very likely take place next season."
Rolapp said the "additional Thursday Night Football games would have to be factored into the overall calculus of the season." The NFL typically releases its schedule in April, so the decision would have to be made much earlier than that.
Despite the likelihood of additional TNF games, Rolapp said there is "no plan for a surcharge for our affiliates."
In mapping its primetime equation, NFL Network will have to replace one game, as the Thanksgiving night contest it has been airing shifts to NBC under the new rights deal, beginning in 2012.
"Ten years ago, 'NFL Kickoff' (the Thursday night season-opener is now televised by NBC) was just an idea, now it's a big event. A Thanksgiving night game on broadcast does that," said Rolapp, explaining that NFL Network will "stand down" and have its schedule work around the Turkey night interruption.
NFL Network tackled 10.7 million viewers, its largest audience to date with last month's matchup of the coaching Harbaugh brothers during Baltimore's 16-6 triumph over San Francisco.
Any additional games in 2012 and beyond would buttress NFL Network, which burnished its arsenal with the 2009 kickoff of the RedZone scoring and highlights service. According to league officials, Red Zone has increased its subscriber count by 37% in its third season. The vast majority of its affiliates, including Comcast, Dish Network and Verizon FiOS, position RedZone on sports tiers, which Rolapp says has been instrumental in helping to drive those businesses.
Currently, NFL Network, which scored a 23% gain to an average 7 million viewers through its first five telecasts of the 2011 campaign, counts some 58 million subscribers, but remains on the sidelines with top 10 distributors Time Warner Cable, which it almost reached a deal with this fall, and Cablevision.
"The market, pricing and positioning for NFL Network have been established. The RedZone channel has been very successful and we've increased the value of the network for our partners overall," said Rolapp. "Our focus is to continue to make the service better and not on those who haven't signed up."
The additional TNF contests on NFL Network doesn't necessarily punt the league's plans to construct another primetime package, something that has drawn the interest of FX, Turner Sports and NBC Sports Network, the new name for Versus starting on Jan. 2.
"No decision has been made there. We have been focused on the Sunday rights," said Rolapp.
Such a package could emerge for the 2013 season. At that point, the league is likely to revise its quest to drop a pair of preseason contests and expand the regular season to 18 games from 16 over the current 17-week format. However, proposals about increasing the regular- season schedule and the chance that players could be exposed to more injuries were major sticking points during the NFL lockout.
Rolapp said there are "mechanisms in place" with the networks if, and when, the season expands. He noted that the potential impact on quality of play and competition would be factors if the league were to increase the schedule with another primetime package going forward.
With the three broadcasters (2014-22) joining ESPN (2014-21) in signing long-term deals, DirecTV's out-of-market Sunday Ticket package -- the current four-year, $4 billion deal spans the 2011-14 seasons -- is now out of step with the other players. Rolapp said the league has not concentrated its attention on Sunday Ticket yet. "There is an exclusive negotiating period. We have some time there," he said.
Although the new rights deals bestow "TV Everywhere" rights, including tablet action, to the broadcast partners, the NFL has not determined whether the networks, given different interests in business models and affiliate protection considerations, will stream live games on their respective websites. (NBC has that right under current deal and new contract.)
"TV Everywhere is a nascent model that doesn't mean the same thing it did 12 months ago, and will likely change again over the next six to 12 months," said Rolapp. "We have retained the flexibility and, with that, mobile rights."
Verizon Wireless is able to stream Sunday, Monday and Thursday night games, RedZone and other NFL highlights and content through a deal that expires after the 2013 season.