For a decade, the National Football League made getting its NFL Network up and running and fully distributed a top priority.
Now that those goals have been pretty much achieved, the league is considering some moves that could be seen as reducing the channel’s value, especially to the cable and satellite operators that carry it.
The NFL is in the process of fielding offers for a one-year Thursday night package of games from its current TV partners -- CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN -- as well as the cable channel TNT, which has no NFL football.
Thursday night football currently airs exclusively on the NFL Network.
The scenario being floated is for the NFL to sell six to eight of the 13 games carried by the NFL Network and keep the rest on its own outlet. As part of the deal, the games that are sold would still be simulcast on the NFL Network.
But this is seen as an interim step toward a much bigger TV contract that could result in the NFL Network losing access to some games entirely.
Ratings for the NFL Network’s Thursday franchise have not been as high as the league had hoped. This season, the games on average drew less than 10 million viewers, much less than the number who typically tune into ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” and NBC’s Sunday night game.
The league wants to make Thursday night football a bigger deal and thinks better games and a stronger platform will do the trick. If ratings on a broadcast network grow dramatically from what the games have been doing on the NFL Network, the money the league could make there in an exclusive long-term deal might be worth the potential downside of taking games away from its own outlet.
The NFL, which had lengthy fights to get carriage for its channel with many pay-TV distributors including Time Warner Cable, said its Thursday plans should not be read as a sign that it is losing interest in the NFL Network.
“We want to accelerate the growth, quality and promotion of Thursday night football. Bringing on a partner can help us accelerate our success across all the games,” an NFL spokesman said.
But a loss of games and/or simulcasting games that are airing elsewhere may have some pay-TV distributors wondering if it isn’t time to call an audible on the channel.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.