Fox signs five-year deal for Thursday Night Football

Fox doubles down on football despite declining ratings, financial losses

In a blockbuster deal, Fox announced Wednesday it has acquired the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package in a five-year, $3 billion pact, roughly $550 million a year. Effective next season, Fox replaces CBS and NBC as the primary broadcasters.

The deal calls for Fox to produce the entire slate (eighteen games in total) of games for the NFL Network, who would also continue to carry Thursday night games, with Fox eleven of those. In addition, the deal includes a sponsorship from Anehuser-Busch, titling it Thursday Night Football Sponsored by Bud Light. Also, Fox gets expanded digital rights through mobile phones, and also gets to broadcast games in Spanish through Fox Deportes.

The NFL has yet to award digital rights for TNF, which went to Amazon last year and to Twitter in 2015. There is no word who would be the announcing teams but it’s unlikely Troy Aikman and Joe Buck would be in the booth for TNF as Buck has post-season baseball duties in October (since Fox also has rights to the World Series, Major League Baseball is expected to avoid scheduling those games on Thursday nights.) The Thanksgiving night game isn’t part of the package; it remains with NBC under its Sunday Night Football deal.

The news wasn’t received well by investors. Shares of Fox’s parent company (21st Century Fox) dropped in midday trading. Ratings declines for NFL games for the past two seasons have been well-documented.

There were numerous bidders for the package; in addition to Fox, CBS, and NBC, ABC/ESPN also bid on the package, but dropped out. There was concern from CBS and NBC about TNF disrupting the regular prime-time schedules as it has did for the past few years, as it lost money for both networks. Now with the entire package at Fox, that won’t be the case – except for the money-losing part.

For example, CBS moved the first few episodes of The Big Bang Theory of the season to Monday nights for the last few years while football was airing on Thursdays, it’s usual home.

The decision for Fox to acquire the TNF package surprised observers; for one, the games are the lowest-rated of the NFL packages; plus, the contests have not been well-received, noted for the low-scoring and the poor quality of play. Players have complained about the games because of the potential of injuries given many teams have only three days’ rest before the next game. Plus, ratings for NFL games this year have declined over the last two years due to numerous factors.

Still, the package draws more viewers than any other program on the evening. And as Fox’s parent company is selling much of its assets to The Walt Disney Company, the “new” Fox is looking to fill more of its prime-time hours with sports and other live fare, including news.

The deal comes as Fox begins its 25th year airing NFL games this fall, as the network “shocked the world” back in December 1993 by outbidding CBS for the National Conference Football package, leaving the network without football after 38 years. The NFL helped cement Fox as America’s fourth network (further driven home by the success of American Idol.) But as linear television broadcasting continues to lose viewers, Fox is making a case an even slumping NFL would be a good bet.