NFL might not flex any Sunday night games in 2014
Nov. 26, 2014
NEW YORK (AP) — For the first time since flexible scheduling came to "Sunday Night Football" in 2006, the NFL could go an entire season without needing it.
No way Cowboys-Eagles gets swapped out in Week 15. NFC East showdowns are huge ratings draws even if both teams are struggling, and this one might decide the division title.
Seahawks-Cardinals in Week 16 keeps getting juicer with Arizona's unexpected run to the league's best record and the defending Super Bowl champs' uncertain playoff hopes.
Those two matchups were slotted in prime time back in April after high-powered computers and high-ranking executives spent weeks paring down millions of possible schedule combinations. They weighed thousands of factors, but they can't control one of the most important for luring a television audience: the teams' records.
Just about everything else, though, is taken into consideration.
There are logistical concerns, such as teams that can't play at home on a certain weekend because they share a parking lot with the local baseball team. There are fairness issues, with clubs balking at playing a Thursday game after a Sunday night appearance or making two straight long road trips.
And finally, there are TV ratings.
"It's almost turning into a 'Moneyball' situation," said Mike North, the league's director of broadcast planning. "You're maximizing the value of each matchup."
Before he joined the NFL, Howard Katz was the president of ABC Sports when it broadcast "Monday Night Football." He took over the league's scheduling before the 2006 season — and brought an increased emphasis on arranging the games to boost viewership, North said.
Current network executives who televise the NFL are always quick to credit Katz when they're asked about the sport's robust ratings. Of course, it doesn't hurt to butter up the senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations, who determines which networks will air the most appealing matchups each year.
But the praise also reflects each network's satisfaction with the way Katz and his team divvy those up. The NFL's knack for defying the viewership declines that plague nearly everything else on TV wouldn't be possible without each time slot consistently filled with enticing matchups, said NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus.
So some of the year's most anticipated games don't wind up in prime time, solidifying the Sunday late afternoon windows on CBS and Fox that draw massive audiences: Denver-Seattle, Dallas-Seattle, Denver-New England, New England-Green Bay.
"They have balanced the interests of the competitive and the commercial beautifully," Lazarus said.
This year, a little luck has ensured the original Sunday night matchups that looked attractive in April were still meaningful when they rolled around on NBC — even if that hasn't ensured close scores. In past years, there was always a key injury or underachieving team that led to the NFL flexing out at least one game.
In 2013, that happened three times — not counting the Week 17 slot, which is initially left open to ensure that a matchup with playoff implications will air in prime time to end the regular season.
The lack of flexing this year came just as the NFL had more leeway to move games from Sunday afternoon to night. Under the new TV contracts, the switches can occur as early as Week 5, while the old policy didn't start until Week 10.
It's an option the league's schedule-makers are happy not to use. They had equally good fortune with another plan.
The Broncos were slated to play in prime time in Weeks 7 and 8 — Sunday night on NBC and then Thursday night on CBS. No coincidence that Peyton Manning came into the season on pace to break Brett Favre's career touchdown record right around then.
Sure enough, he did it on national TV on Oct. 19 during "Sunday Night Football."
The timing of the Tampa Bay-Chicago game didn't pan out so well. Former Bears coach Lovie Smith is now leading the Buccaneers, but when they met in Week 12, both underachieving teams were struggling, dulling the intrigue of the matchup. A game like that works best early in the season, but sometimes the most TV-friendly choice just isn't possible with all the other factors that go into the schedule.
"There are constant, constant trade-offs," North said.