NFL Could Expand Playoffs, Launching Bidding War for Extra Games

League Considers Adding Wild-Card Teams

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The NFL's current TV partners -- Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN -- are waiting to hear which network will land a package of Thursday Night games culled from the NFL Network's schedule. But there's another possible prize on the horizon: TV rights to additional Wild Card playoff games.

Peyton Manning and the Broncos came back against the Chiefs in one Wild Card game this year.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos came back against the Chiefs in one Wild Card game this year. Credit: Dustin Bradford

Commissioner Roger Goodell told NFL Network the $10 billion league might add more Wild Card teams to the post-season. NFL media chief Brian Rolapp said those additional Wild Card games are not part of current TV contracts. That means the league's TV partners, as well as possibly outsiders, might have a chance to bid on some of the most valuable real estate in the TV world: NFL post-season games.

"If we expanded the playoffs, nobody has contractual rights to those games," said Mr. Rolapp, chief operating officer of NFL Media, here at league headquarters in Manhattan. "So our steps are, first, to figure out: Does it work from a football standpoint? Second, if it does, how do you schedule to maximize not only your television exposure, so fans can watch it at home, but also fans who are traveling to the game. Then, third, you figure out who the best broadcast partner is to package those and distribute those (games). We're still on that first part for how to make it work."

Fox Sports will broadcast Super Bowl XLVIII from MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Would Fox be interested in bidding on additional Wild Card game telecasts? "Very interested," answered Fox spokesman Lou D'Ermilio.

ESPN is dying for an NFL playoff game. So look for ESPN to be a strong bidder if the package comes up for grabs. TNT used to have an NFL TV rights. That network could be a player too.

Wild Card Weekend often produces some of the most exciting games of the playoffs, such as the Indianapolis Colts overcoming a 28-point deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 45-44. More Wild Card games would spell more ad revenue for TV partners and more opportunities for the league's 32 clubs to make the post-season. But when to schedule them?

Doubling up on Saturday and Sunday the first weekend of the playoffs is a possibility. But the NFL's also intrigued by Monday nights. ESPN, which pays the NFL nearly $2 billion a year for the rights to Monday Night Football, would not automatically get Monday Night Playoff games, Mr. Rolapp said.

Thursday night rights
But before the NFL adds more Wild Card playoff games, it will first have to make a decision on who gets the Thursday night package culled from the NFL Network's current-13 game schedule. All bids are in and a decision could come as soon as this week.

Mr. Rolapp declined to handicap the contenders. But based on the NFL's desire to expand Thursday Night Football audiences, look for broadcast network such as Fox or NBC to win the bidding. Sports Business Daily reported that if Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN won the bid, the games would be aired on ABC.

"One thing that's important to us is to get broad distribution of the Thursday Night package. When we started this experiment, we started with eight games on the NFL Network really just to see if Thursday would work from a football standpoint, from a competitive standpoint, from a media standpoint. When we get our sea legs under us, we added another five," he said. "So we feel Thursday night is a huge opportunity. Now, how do we make that bigger? ... Broadcast is in a strong position because of that. People still consume broadcast more than cable. The promotional reach is pretty well documented. But we haven't made any decisions."

By moving its Sunday Night Football package to NBC from ESPN, and adding flexible scheduling, the league helped turned NBC's Sunday Night Football into the most-watched program on prime time TV. So will the NFL try to do for Thursday night what it did on Sunday night?

That would be difficult, noted Mr. Rolapp. For one thing, flexible scheduling on Sunday nights allows the league to put the most popular TV teams such as the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers in prime time up to four times per regular season.

But many players and coaches hate playing Thursday nights due to the short week to recover from injuries and prepare game plans. For that reason, the league would probably not ask clubs to play more than one Thursday nighter per regular season, said Mr. Rolapp.

"Thursday's essentially a short week from a football standpoint. What we won't do as we sit here today is make any team from a competitive standpoint play a short week more than once. When you start from that premise, you're going to be limited. You're not going to put the Dallas Cowboys on four times. It's not fair to the Dallas Cowboys. And so there's an opportunity for almost every team in the NFL to play on Thursday nights. In fact, every team would play a short week when you add in the Thanksgiving windows."

One option under consideration, he said, would be for the teams playing on Thanksgiving Day to play the following Thursday. "That would be a full week. But we haven't figure out how to do that yet," said Mr. Rolapp.

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