Radix malorum est cupiditas, or, “at the root of evil is greed”—a maxim essential to understanding much of the universe, especially the NFL.
In fairness, some of the league’s decisions born of greed have been good: The Red Zone Channel has brought joy to millions of fantasy-addled degenerates, and expansion to 32 teams has served major markets well without substantially diluting the quality of play. Others, though, have been malignant. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported on Sunday that the league is considering curtailing Thursday Night Football when its broadcast deals expire after the 2017 season. The league, which denied the report on Monday, appeared to finally be on to something: It’s time to kill the sloppy, tedious prime-time game.
Can TNF get any worse than it has been this year? Each week has felt like Jaguars-Titans (a Thursday Night special three years running, incidentally). Nike’s Color Rush uniforms, worn every outing, have been kinder to the color-blind but hardly kinder to viewers at large. The games have bounced among three channels, with similarly erratic graphics packages and announcer pairings. Later this year, NBC broadcasters Mike Tirico and Doug Flutie will call two Thursday Night Football games . . . on the NFL Network . . . one on Saturday, one on Sunday. Got it?
As for the games themselves, they have been routs, with an average victory margin of two touchdowns and only three (of 11) decided by single digits. Only twice has the Vegas underdog won outright. In all games this season underdogs have won 39% of the time.
One year is a small sample, but over the life of TNF, the favored team has gone 57-46-2 against the spread (74–31 straight-up, with one game lacking a favorite at kickoff), suggesting a small but persistent advantage. It stands to reason that a shrunken week of preparation would magnify the difference between well-run teams and bad ones. (Some might presume a short week of preparation favors home teams, but over the life of TNF, home teams are 52-52-2 against the spread—which suggests that any short-week advantage they might have is already priced into the gambling line.) Surely the NFL should have known that TNF had the potential to cause such an imbalance.
And yet it pressed on, for the package has always existed not to please fans or players but to suit the NFL’s deal-making prerogative. In 2003 team owners, drooling over the per-subscriber fees that cable and satellite providers paid ESPN, launched the NFL Network. They even hired onetime ESPN CEO Steve Bornstein to run it. The network, which carried NFL Europa telecasts but no live NFL games, built little traction with distributors. The solution, cooked up three years later? Make a half-season of games exclusive to the NFL Network and give them their own prime-time slot. It worked: Come 2013, the NFL Network was charging cable companies more per subscriber than any network but ESPN.
Yes, a similar money grab occasioned Monday Night Football’s creation in 1970. But MNF, the NFL’s first foray into prime time, was the commissioner’s priority and had the weight of one of only three networks at the time—ABC—behind it. Thursday Night could never be more than an afterthought, as the NFL already had two weekly prime-time games. Besides, Thursday games didn’t need good ratings to enrich the league: Because of cable’s business model, they simply needed to be exclusive.
The league didn’t stop there. In 2012, TNF became a full-season affair, and in ’14, CBS became a partner, giving America two games a week of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. NBC joined the mix this year, and the games have been streamed on Twitter, another example of the NFL’s treating these games as little more than an experiment.
Who would be surprised that a product conceived so cynically would fail to delight its intended audience? TNF is the NFL’s Ford Pinto. Only, unlike that plucky subcompact, it’s still waiting to catch fire.