NFL agrees to new deals with CBS, NBC, and Fox

The National Football League has secured deals with three of its network partners to keep football on over-the-air broadcast TV for the next decade.

The deals keeps everything status quo – Fox continues to broadcast the NFC package it has held since 1994; CBS retains the AFC package it has held since 1998; and NBC keeps the Sunday night package it has held since 2006. The deals are for nine years each – the longest since the seven-year deals CBS, Fox, and ABC (for Monday Night Football) held from 1998-2005.

All three pay a total of around $1 billion per year for deals that won’t expire until 2022.

But even though the NFL is staying with its current broadcast partners, there will be some changes:

– The NFL plans to expand their Thursday Night package next year from eight to an indefinite number of games a season and split the package between the NFL Network and a yet-to-be-determined outlet

– The Thanksgiving Night game is being moved from the NFL Network to NBC beginning in 2012

– NBC loses a Wild-card game – but gains a divisional playoff (second round) game in the process

– The network that’s gaining a Wild-Card game hasn’t been determined yet – though ESPN is the likely destination

– Beginning in 2014, the schedules will become more flexible – CBS could air a match up between two NFC teams (something it hasn’t done since 1993) and Fox could air a matchup between two AFC teams. Plus, both networks would be able to flex more games into the 3:15 p.m. (CT) window, where HUT levels are higher. NBC maintains the right to flex games into primetime

– NBC gains Spanish-language rights, including airing SNF on sister network Telemundo

– All three networks get three Super Bowls each over the nine-year period

– Expansion of digital rights, giving CBS and Fox the ability to stream games on both computers and tablets, while NBC gains additional rights to stream on tablets (they already have the rights to stream on computers) and use the “TV Everywhere” platform

Earlier, ESPN renewed its deal to carry Monday Night Football for another eight years for $1.9 billion a year. Their deal expires in 2021.

You can argue the increase in price over the last deals are justified – in an age of fragmated programming options, the NFL still draws the most viewers of any television program – 23 of the last 25 most-watched programs this fall were NFL games.

Even games featuring mediocre teams can still draw big ratings – the Browns routinely draw a 50 share every week in Cleveland – far and away the market’s number one television property despite a losing record.

And if you lose the NFL – the consequences can be dire. Just ask CBS: during the Laurence Tisch era, Lord Penny Pincher let football – which had been a staple of the network since 1956 – let Fox steal the NFC package away from The Church of Tisch in 1993. As a result, Fox was able to steal eight major-market affiliates away from CBS in a deal with New World Communications which was announced on May 23, 1994, taking sway stations in Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, and Tampa, among others. CBS resumed airing NFL football in 1998 after stealing the AFC package away from NBC, ending a 33-year relationship in the process.

But the real question now is, who’s going to pay for all of this? There’s no doubt Fox, CBS, and NBC will ask their affiliates to pay part of the freight for this deal – and they’ll get a portion of the money from the retransmission fees the affiliates get from cable operators to re-transmit their signal. Fox and a few station groups have feuded over those fees, and has resulted in affiliation switches in a few markets – for example, three Indiana stations owned by Nexstar Communications (WFFT in Fort Wayne, WTVW in Evansville, and WFXW in Terre Haute) all recently ended their relationship with Fox due to a dispute over retrans fees. Both WFFT and WTVW went independent; WFXW changed its call letters to WAWV and moved to ABC, while Fox is now broadcast over digital subchannel positions of other stations in each market.

While the networks and the NFL are jubilant about their new extra-long deals, station groups and especially cable operators outside of Comcast may be less so.