NFL Thursday Night Background
The NFL Network’s coverage was not the first time games were covered on Thursday or Saturday. Prior to the new contract, ESPN carried a handful of sporadic Thursday night games (usually those displaced from Sunday night) and the broadcast networks used to air several national games on Saturday afternoons in mid-to-late December after the regular college football season ended, a practice which has since been discontinued. Incidentally, the only reason the league is even allowed to televise football games on Saturday night stems from a legal loophole: the league’s antitrust exemption, the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, was written when the NFL regular season ended in mid-December, and as such, it contains specific language that prohibits televising NFL games in most markets on Friday nights and all day on Saturdays between the second week of September and the second week of December, to protect high school and college football. Since most high school and college seasons have ended by mid-December, other than bowl games, there has been little desire to close this loophole, even though the regular season has expanded well beyond mid-December since the law’s passage.
In 2005, when the NFL negotiated a new set of television contracts, Comcast-owned OLN offered to pay $450 million for an eight-year contract to carry NFL games in prime time. In exchange, Comcast planned to add NFL Network to its digital cable lineup. The channel was added, but NFLN decided to air the games itself, foregoing a rights fee. The other TV deals generated $3.735 billion per year over an eight-year period for CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, and DirecTV.
The Thanksgiving matchup was moved from NFL Network to NBC’s broadcast package as part of the new broadcast contract after the 2011 season. During Super Bowl week in 2012, it was announced that the Thursday Night Football package would expand from 8 to 13 games and air on NFL Network, again soliciting and rejecting offers from Turner Sports and Comcast.