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Fox lobbied NFL to move some marquee Sunday TV games to Thursday night

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 4/20/2018 A.J. Perez
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There was a new wrinkle when the networks began their usual lobbying efforts for the upcoming NFL regular-season TV schedule: Fox’s acquisition of the Thursday night package. 

NFL executives told USA TODAY Sports that Fox was willing to offer some of its better matchups from Sunday afternoon to bolster Thursdays.  

“They encouraged us to look at a number of Sunday afternoon Fox doubleheader games and to take a handful of games ... where we could build the importance of Thursday night for them,” said Blake Jones, director of NFL football operations. “There were games in the mix that weren’t really in the mix in previous years that we were able to work with this year.”

Fox pays about $1.1 billion for Sunday afternoon NFC games, with CBS paying about the same for the AFC package. The NFC package has always tended to do better viewership-wise – largely due to marquee teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers – than the AFC, so Fox had a bit more leeway. 

Fox outbid NBC and CBS and will pay $5 billion over the next five years to broadcast games on Thursday nights.

“We’re so invested for the next five years in Thursday night, there is no game, at least in our package, that is too good to be on Thursday,” Fox Sports president Eric Shanks said earlier this week at the World Congress, a sports business summit in Los Angeles. “We’re just as invested in Thursday as we are in Sunday. It’s just as important to us.” 

Fox’s Thursday night debut comes in Week 4 as the Minnesota Vikings face the Los Angeles Rams. Among the other notable games: The Super Bowl champ Philadelphia Eagles vs. New York Giants in Week 6, Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks in Week 11 and New Orleans Saints vs. Dallas Cowboys in Week 13.The Thursday night games will be simulcast on NFL Network and Fox Sports Deportes. 

NFL viewership slipped 10% in 2017, a year after it fell 8% in the regular season. So, along with satisfying teams in terms of travel and bye weeks, Jones said keeping a strong Sunday slate of games remained a priority for the league. 

Networks submit lists of games they want in initial meetings with the NFL around the Super Bowl. From there, calls are made and emails are exchanged as the NFL uses  its own scheduling experts to work around concerts and other sporting events near NFL stadiums to come up with a draft.

Beyond Fox, the NFL also had to appease its other prime-time partners: NBC (Sunday night) and ESPN (Monday night). 

NBC’s slate of 19 regular-season games starts with NFL Kickoff 2018 as the Eagles face the Falcons on a Thursday (Sept. 6). ESPN will close out Week 1 with a Monday Night Football doubleheader (Sept. 10): New York Jets vs. Detroit Lions followed by Rams vs. Raiders. And ESPN appears pleased with its MNF schedule.

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“The NFL is faced with a difficult task of putting together the annual schedule," Burke Magnus, ESPN executive VP of programming and scheduling, said in an email to USA TODAY Sports. "We had a lot of productive conversations with the league throughout the planning process and we are pleased with the results.”

Jones admitted it's not an easy process.

“We try to thread the needle and find the right balance between making all the television partners relatively happy and hopefully not disappointing the teams much,” Jones said. “Or goal is to disappoint everybody equally. We try to find the balance between a good television schedule and fair team schedule."

Related slideshow: Predicting every NFL team's record and the Super Bowl champ (Photos by Touchdown Wire)


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