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Thursday Night Football: a ‘poopfest’ that was never meant for fans

For nearly a decade TNF has helped the NFL hold sway over television executives. But it may have outlived its usefulness

A popular perception is that the NFLs Thursday night games broadcast on the leagues own NFL Network and recently described by the Seattle Seahawks Richard Sherman as a poopfest are a product of greed. This is not entirely true. Thursday Night Football had a lot more to do with power and leverage than a simple sniff at the money.

This week the Giants play the Eagles in what could be the final ever, regular Thursday night telecast. Recently, Profootballtalk.com reported the league is looking hard at cutting back their schedule of Thursday night games, citing a source that said the games dont generate enough money to be worth the overload of prime time football (never mind that the match-ups are often underwhelming and leave little time for players to recover if they have played the previous weekend). The NFL denied the report but it is clear that Thursday Night Football has now served its mercenary purpose and has become a drag on the rest of televised football. At the very least, the broadcast will have significant tweaks if it returns.

Unlike the Sunday and Monday night telecasts, which have a big game aura and feel more like an event, Thursday Night Football was created a decade ago to be ballast against the other networks. At the time NBC, CBS, ESPN and Fox still deemed the NFL to be their path to salvation. And so the league figured that by broadcasting their own games on their own channel they could frighten the networks into believing the NFL might someday take all their games in house, cutting out the networks. The plan worked better than anyone could have imagined. The networks caved. Five years ago NBC, CBS and Fox agreed to spend 63% more to televise games through 2022.

The NFL understands clout like few sports organizations ever will. For 20 years they held open Los Angeles while nearly all their teams negotiated new stadium deals under the implied guise that a move to LA was always possible if the legislatures and voters didnt pay up. Their television network has been a similar kind of hammer. The first Thursday night games in 2006 werent just a weight against the networks, they were an opening to raise their channels cost to customers from 20 cents to 70 cents with a message: Dont deny your customers their football. They even bought the rights to some minor college bowl games with the idea that schools based in the markets of non-compliant cable providers would be irate that their bowl games were blacked out and pressure the cable companies to pay the NFL whatever it wanted. 

Im a guy that likes winning, right? Steve Bornstein the NFLs then-executive vice president for media told me not long before the first Thursday night game in 2006. One way you can measure this is: can you make money? Ive found personally thats where I can excel.

Bornstein, who helped build ESPN into a giant, does indeed know how to make money. He made the NFL billions before leaving the league in 2014. His legacy is an NFL Network that has been chiseled into more than 70m homes and an astounding $27bn squeezed from the other networks. Not a bad trade for a few lousy midweek games between teams you dont want to see wearing garish color rush uniforms

For a long time, NFL executives marveled at the seemingly endless demand for their product. They were surprised ESPN found an audience years ago for a year-round, afternoon football show and dreamed their own network could generate significant revenue. As they pushed more games into lucrative primetime slots they must have wondered how far they could go before the public had enough. Maybe they are reaching that point.

A word people have used lately to describe the NFLs all day Sunday, Monday night, Thursday night schedule is oversaturation. In other words there are too many games billed as events that really arent events. For years, media analysts have wondered if the league was going too far, giving people too much.

But until now, especially with the NFL, that has never happened, Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University told the Guardian this fall. 

This year the ratings have tanked. And while a few compelling Thursday match-ups in recent weeks have pushed that evenings numbers back up the overall picture for the NFL on TV is much bleaker than it was a year ago. Some of this undoubtedly is due to an overall drop in the number of people watching television. And yet the NFL has always defied industry declines in the past. A bigger problem appears to be that the league has too many nationally-televised games for a public that no longer wants them.

Sunday and Monday nights have always seemed special as if those games are something youd want to see. Thursday never had that feeling of being special. But maybe thats because Thursday Night Football was never meant to be a big, great presentation of football. It was a weapon designed to bring network executives to their knees. Once the NFL proved they could televise their games in a quality similar to NBC and CBS and all the others, Thursdays games became an ugly warning to the bosses in televisions boardrooms. Pay up or watch the NFL take their ratings monster away. 

Thursday Night Football was not created from a love for the game. It was never a celebration of Americas biggest sport. It was a power play that pitted networks against themselves and fans against big cable. For 10 years Thursday Night Football played its role perfectly. The Thursday night hammer pounded out TV deals with amazing efficiency.

But television is slipping now. Whats the point of a Thursday night hammer if there is nothing left to hit?

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