Why Fox Just Paid $3.3 Billion for ‘Thursday Night Football’ – Despite Sagging NFL Ratings

$60 million per game for the worst game of the week? Here’s why huge bid could be worth it


If “New Fox” is going down, it’s doing so with a (10-yard) fight. Assuming the government doesn’t intervene, Disney should take over most of 21st Century Fox’s assets in about a year. But the Mouse House won’t get Fox’s news and sports operations or broadcast network — the latter of which is now the new home to NFL’s “Thursday Night Football.”

Those valuable pro pigskin rights will cost Fox about $60 million a game over the next five years, TheWrap was told by a person with knowledge of the deal’s terms. That’s roughly $3.3 billion all-in. Considering the last deal for “Thursday Night Football” — which was split by NBC and CBS — valued each game at $45 million, Fox is paying quite a premium. More specifically, it’s a giant 33.3 percent price hike.

Clearly, Fox felt like it needed primetime NFL football at any cost — even this huge one. But why?

After all, there’s a problem with “TNF” that Fox will have to fix: The games have been lousy. Yes, the NFL season kicks off on a Thursday, but that’s a “Sunday Night Football” production, which belongs to NBC. At least Thanksgiving is on a Thursday, right? Well, right, yes — but that primetime game is also still NBC’s. Plus, “Thursday Night Football” doesn’t even technically begin until Week 4, and it goes away after Week 15. In other words, this deal kind of covers the worst parts of the NFL season.

And then there are the Nielsen TV ratings. My goodness, the ratings. “Thursday Night Football” declined a whopping 20.6 percent on NBC from last season. Though it was only down 2.5 percent on CBS, much of that is mere luck of the draw. Plus, CBS had a much softer starting position than NBC did.

For a comparison between the quality of the games and audience size, “TNF” on NBC 13.583 million total viewers this season. The same broadcast network’s “Sunday Night Football” games averaged 18.285 million overall audience members — that’s a near-35 percent advantage for the weekend.

That’s all an argument against (or at least, to be cautious about) Fox’s huge bid. We promised we’d explain why the Peter Rice-managed company opened its checkbook so wide.

The Fox broadcast network, which is staying put as the centerpiece of New Fox, is poised to lose its main pipeline of entertainment shows when studio 20th Century Fox heads to Cinderella’s Castle. With news programming staying put on cable bully Fox News Channel, the youngest of the Big 4 networks needs to fill primetime — TV’s most important day part — somehow.

Yes, New Fox will still get shows from other studios — and maybe it will launch or acquire a new in-house development partner — but on (new) Day 1 it will be no one’s first choice of destination. The only studio the NFL on Fox requires is the one where Michael Strahan, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Jimmy Johnson and Curt Menefee pal around in on Sundays — and soon, Thursdays.

Even though the NFL’s TV ratings have been having a rough go, they’re still way better than anything else Fox could possibly put on. With sports included, Fox is currently No. 2 on the season in Nielsen ratings among adults 18-49, which is the age-range most coveted by advertisers. Sans sports, which removes the World Series and any Sunday afternoon NFL overruns, Fox is dead last among the Big 4. Remember: this ain’t the “Empire” heyday anymore.

Where does one get $3.3 billion from anyway? Well, from Disney. The Bob Iger-led company is paying $52.4 billion for much of Fox, with the total transaction value at approximately $66.1 billion. Oh, and we hear Rupert & Co. have pretty deep pockets anyway. Money’s not an issue here — but it could still be wasted, and shareholders should have a say in all of this. As a matter of fact, they already have: FOXA stock slipped 4 percent per share today on news of the mega-deal.

So is the new game (rights) in town a touchdown or a fumble? Let’s say it’s inconclusive at the moment, and we’ll wait to really review the replay following the 2022 season, when the “Thursday Night Football” package will next be up for auction.