Leveraging live sports and media power, the National Football League has transformed Thursday night games and its league-owned 24-hour NFL Network into an annual $1.5-billion business.
TV revenue soared as the league hiked pay-TV subscriber fees buried in consumer bills for the NFL Network and resold TV rights to Thursday night games to television broadcasters, creating two revenue streams for same NFL games.
Comcast Corp.-owned NBC and CBS will each televise five Thursday night games in 2016, they recently announced.
The NFL now is negotiating with digital companies to sell Thursday games for streaming. If it reaches a deal, the Thursday games could appear on three separate platforms at the same time: broadcast-TV, cable and online.
"You can like them or you can hate them but they are meticulous about squeezing revenue to the point that it doesn't seem like they can squeeze more, and then they do," David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business in California, said this week of the NFL.
"What this all adds up to is that the industry has understood the real demand," Carter said. "Don't blame the NFL. They've been undercharging for a long time."
The NFL says the Thursday games win ratings on both cable and broadcast channels on the nights they air.
Consumers - even those who don't watch the NFL - pay for the NFL games through higher subscriber fees in satellite- and cable-TV bills. Both cable channels and broadcast-TV networks now charge these fees piled into monthly bills.
For the NFL Network those fees in 2016 are $1.39 a month, according to data from research firm SNL Kagan. The channel is distributed to 68 million homes. The fees in 2012 were 85 cents a month. The 2016 fees will generate an estimated $1.1 billion for the NFL Network.
Meanwhile, NBC and CBS are each paying an additional $225 million for the rights to simulcast 10 Thursday night games, or a total of $450 million a year. The deals are expected to boost CBS and NBC prime-time audiences by millions.
While the Thursday night NFL games are its most valuable entertainment airing on the NFL Network, the league says that it televises other popular content on the channel. "We certainly continue to invest in new programming such as the Football Town and Timeline series – both which premiered in 2015," NFL Network spokesman Alex Riethmiller said this week. "That programming along with exclusive events like the NFL Scouting Combine, NFL Draft (shared with ESPN), and others give consumers and NFL fans a ton of value and we add to it every year."