Disney Makes Sense For Thursday Night Football if FOX Opts Out

Brian Giuffra
FOX Sports.
FOX Sports. / Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
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I read a comment made by FOX CFO Steve Tomsic this morning stating if FOX had to choose between broadcasting Thursday Night Football or the Sunday package, they would go with the latter.

“The heritage of the company was built on Sunday afternoon football,” Tomsic said.

That's an accurate point. It's how Rupert Murdoch built his media empire. He spent $1.6 billion in 1993 to broadcast NFL games on Sundays and FOX engrained itself within the fabric of American life because of it.

In 2018, FOX doubled down on its NFL broadcast rights by paying (some called it overpaying) $3.25 billion over five years to broadcast Thursday Night Football. Two years into the deal, and with NFL rights costs expected to double or triple in the next negotiating period, it appears FOX is already prepared to move on.

Whether that's because of the historical struggles of monetizing TNF, which was part of the reason NBC and CBS didn't match FOX's offer to broadcast the games beyond 2017, or something else is inconsequential. What matters is if FOX is out on TNF, Disney makes the most sense as the future broadcaster.

Disney, the parent company of ESPN and ABC, is reportedly interested in increasing its NFL offering. Currently, they broadcast Monday Night Football on ESPN, but they want to broadcast games on ABC with an eye on televising Super Bowls in the future.

CBS and FOX appear all-in on retaining their Sunday NFL packages when their rights come up after the 2022 season and NBC is too, though Disney is also interested in Sunday Night Football. If they strike out there, that leaves Thursday Night Football as the primary option.

Disney already paid billions to outbid CBS to acquire SEC broadcast rights earlier this year and is reportedly engaged in negotiations to acquire NHL rights and renew their partnership with the MLB. That's all to say, Disney is arguably the biggest player in the rights acquisition field right now and doesn't appear primed to stop spending for the NFL.

The other element to consider with Disney is their desire to increase subscriptions to Disney+. They're already discussed putting more college football games behind the Disney+ paywall and could ramp up subscriptions by putting the most popular league in the world behind a paywall too. Whether the NFL would allow that is unclear or whether Diseny+ could hold some other value with NFL rights is too (think TV show). But the arms race to build subscriptions on streaming services is raging across all national broadcasters and this could be an avenue considered by Disney.

There are many other factors to the decision making for FOX, Disney, the NFL and the other broadcasters when it comes to extending, renewing, or acquiring new rights. The biggest of which, coronavirus and its impact on the economy and marketing revenue over the next two years, is impossible to quantify right now. There's also the reality that Tomsic's comment could be a negotiating ploy and FOX remains intent on keeping Thursday Night Football. But based on what is being said in public, and based on the way live sports broadcasting is trending, Disney makes the most sense for future Thursday Night Football broadcasts-- whether it's aired on ESPN, ABC, or Disney+.

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