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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Blanket Coverage: NFL’s Global Expansion Could Create Fourth Sunday Time Slot

  • Future NFL Sundays could see games airing from morning to midnight.
  • Most international games kick off at 9:30 AM ET.
NFL in London
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ready for 14 straight hours of NFL football? The league’s pending expansion of its International Series could eventually create a fourth televised-game window on NFL Sundays.

On Wednesday, the league voted to boost the inventory of international games from four to eight games. Now, throw in the annual international Jacksonville Jaguars game and there could be as many as nine contests played outside of the U.S., starting as early as the 2025 season. 

Most of the International Series games are currently played in England or Germany, with a kickoff time of 9:30 AM ET. Down the road, look for games from as far afield as Spain as well as Canada, Mexico and Brazil, which have more U.S.-friendly time zones. In the short term, owners voted to approve a game in Sao Paulo, Brazil next season.

“Bringing the NFL to new continents, countries and cities around the world is a critical element of our plan to continue to grow the game globally, ” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement after the vote. 

In the future, as many as eight regular season Sundays could feature four consecutive TV windows for insatiable NFL viewers. It should be noted, though, that just because there is inventory for up to eight games (not counting the Jaguars), that doesn’t necessarily mean the NFL will use all the slots. 

“I think it’s really great,” Jaguars owner Shad Khan told FOS. “If you’re serious about international growth, you’ve got to have more games. It’s a step in the right direction, and there’s a huge amount of demand for them. This goes in a small way toward satisfying some of the demand.”

So is the NFL aiming for a fourth Sunday game window?

“Could be,” Khan said. “The 9:30 Eastern Time game is a perfect international window.”

 Here’s what a schedule could look like, from early morning to midnight:

  • 9:30 AM ET: International Series telecast
  • 1:00 PM: Early afternoon games on CBS Sports and Fox Sports
  • 4:25 PM: Late afternoon games on CBS and Fox
  • 8:15 PM: Sunday Night Football on NBC Sports

The four game windows format is not new. As recently as November, the NFL offered viewers four consecutive windows of Sunday football games; all featuring teams with records over .500. Football fans loved it. The league’s own NFL Network will offer three consecutive game telecasts this Saturday.

“I have long predicted an international schedule, with eight games outside our borders and each team having to play every other year,” former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt told Front Office Sports. “We will see.”

The new rule, will however, impact NFL franchise’s home dates. Teams will now lose one home game every four years, rather once every eight years, starting in 2025.

The NFL is the savviest league when it comes to making more money off the same finite number of games, and the expansion of the International Series could give the league a new TV package for broadcast networks and giant streamers to bid on, noted ProFootballTalk. Not to mention media rights to a possible four-team European division in the future.

Witness the NFL’s ability to sell “Thursday Night Football,” a package that none of the linear networks wanted anymore, to Amazon Prime Video for $1 billion per year. The NFL’s current media rights deals with CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, and Amazon will generate $110 billion in rights fees through the 2033 season. The international games, wrote PFT, “will become a potentially lucrative window to be sold, in time, to a network or a streamer.”

This year’s five International Series games aired across NFL Network and the ESPN+ streaming platform. Those games were hosted in London and in Frankfurt, Germany, and they featured some interesting innovations. The Walt Disney Co. scored a critical success with its “Toy Story Funday Football” alt-cast of the Jaguars-Falcons game, which was played in London in Week 4. That early kickoff allowed Disney and ESPN to reach kids and young parents. 

Nearly a decade ago, billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicted that greedily pushing NFL games into new days and new TV windows would eventually backfire on the “hoggy” league. “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way,” warned Cuban.

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If anything, the reverse seems to be true, with the NFL on pace for its best TV season in eight years. Through Week 14, NFL games are averaging 17.8 million viewers across TV and digital platforms. That’s up 7% from the same point last season – and it marks the highest season-to-date average since 2015. Dating back to the kickoff of this season, 72 of the Top 75 most-watched TV shows have been NFL games.

The NFL only seems to understand the word yes when it comes to expansion, whether that’s regular season games or new TV windows. Remember, this league went from 12 to 14 to 16 to 17 regular season games; that took over the Thanksgiving holiday decades ago; and that’s now staking its TV claim to both Black Friday and Christmas Day, long the domain of the NBA.

Sorry, Mark Cuban, but this hog only gets fatter every year. 

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