The 2014 NFL season officially begins this week with a Thursday night broadcast on NBC – the Sunday Night Football network. However, after that on Thursday nights other networks will take over — first CBS and then the NFL Network. This has become one of the more interesting offseason moves, at least on the media-side, that is, the look of NFL Thursday night football this season.
While it is no secret how powerful the NFL is, and the media has certainly made it known, it bears repeating. Sunday Night Football on NBC was the most watched TV program last fall in all of TV, averaging 22 million viewers every week. NBC was charging advertisers upwards of $600K for a 30-second spot for a weekly game.
This is why CBS paid a reported $275 million for the eight-game package. And according to the NFL, that wasn’t even the highest offer. But what CBS did have that others didn’t was a huge promotional powerhouse to give the Thursday Night games an added boost. Last season’s slate of Thursday night games according to SB Nation averaged more than eight million viewers — which was up 27% from the previous season. CBS has been putting all of its promotional muscle behind the Thursday Night Game. For the past two months they have been running a campaign entitled “Football Starts Here” with stars from its biggest shows in football eye black. NFL promos have been integrated into the biggest shows, Big Brother recently had an NFL Thursday Night Football challenge, and analysts from NFL on CBS will be making guest appearances in CBS-scripted shows in the coming weeks.
In addition, in case there was any question about the NFL’s power over broadcast, in another move by CBS to push its new deal for Thursday Night Football, its show “The Big Bang Theory” has quickly been moved from Thursday night to Monday night. As the top-rated comedy on TV, it is arguably the pride and joy of the network, averaging 20 million live viewers in a TV landscape where primetime shows from the big four networks only average 9.8 million viewers (according to ABC News). By moving “The Big Bang Theory” to Monday nights, CBS has put all of its bets on the power of the NFL. This is like being the only guy on your block to have a Porsche, then buying a Lamborghini.
All of this is in the hopes of backing up CBS’s “guarantee” of a 12.3 rating or 18 million viewers – which would put it close to what NBC averages with Sunday Night Football. That guarantee is also why CBS is reportedly charging advertisers $500K for a 30-second spot. While CBS admits they have not sold out, they have gotten four major brands to sign on as sponsors. Lowe’s and Verizon will be presenting sponsors for the pre-game show. Lexus and Mazda will sponsor the halftime and post-game shows as well.
If CBS can achieve its rating “guarantee,” it would only continue to solidify the remarkable power of the NFL. But something has to give, right? Will the addition of a Thursday night game on CBS dilute the power of the NFL? Could Thursday’s success mean a drop in other NFL games on Sunday or Monday? Or will there be Thursday night success, spurred by the CBS broadcasts, which will spill over to the NFL Network – so that it, too, can cash in on the increased pricing for ad time? Time will tell, but regardless, as sports marketers we will be watching this development closely.
To change the old “Field of Dreams” saying a bit, the NFL and its broadcast partners operate under the thinking of “if you broadcast it, they will watch.” Regardless of what controversy surrounds the league and its players, this remains true, at least for now. While some might question the NFL’s potential over saturation of broadcasts, until proven otherwise, we live in a football-crazed nation that loves watching, whether it is Sunday, Monday or even Thursday.