By Jim Steeg, former NFL Senior VP of Special Events 

On November 8th, the NFL Network had 5.2 million viewers watch the Indianapolis Colts vs Jacksonville Jaguars game. To put that in contrast, 16.9 million viewers watched The Big Bang Theory on CBS. Sunday Night Football on NBC regularly sees ratings of many multiples of the Colts and Jaguars game. However, questionable ratings are only part of the NFL’s growing Thursday dilemma. Competitive and logistical issues are starting to affect the participants.

Thursday night NFL games have been part of the NFL schedule since 1986, if you do not include the traditional Thanksgiving Day games, which started with the beginning of the NFL in 1920. For years, starting in 1978, ABC carried one to three games a year, some as replacements for games pre-empted by the World Series and/or the last Monday night of the season. TNT did the same as a replacement for the World Series during their broadcast tenure, which started in 1990. ESPN then filled that role through 2005.

When the NFL went to a half-season Thursday package on the NFL Network on November 23, 2006, Thursday night games became a fixture, and this year became a full-season-long schedule. Just last season, the problems started to arise, particularly as teams had to fly great distances for games. The most high-profile issues were the cases of the San Francisco 49ers going to the Baltimore Ravens for a Thanksgiving night game, which followed the New York Jets having to travel to the Denver Broncos just the week prior.

Owners, General Managers and Head Coaches have been very cautious about criticizing the Thursday night games. Former Ravens head coach and current FOX Sports NFL analyst Brian Billick recently wrote about the physical toll the games were taking on the players and the “incredible disadvantage” the visiting teams face in preparing for the games. This is especially true with the divisional games.

Jim Harbaugh was very vocal about his displeasure when his 49ers were forced to play at Baltimore on a Thursday Night last season

Teams coming off the Wednesday/Thursday night games are a combined 7 wins and 11 losses the following week. In divisional games, home teams are 5 – 1 (the exception being Indianapolis @ Jacksonville). Coaches obviously are struggling to adjust the players’ schedules given this second mini bye of the season

The NFL has now realized that, in addition to generating lower ratings, the Thursday night games have not been popular with the home team fans. Each game has had the blackout lifted, but it was apparent the games in Jacksonville, San Diego, Cleveland, and even Carolina were manufactured sellouts. The “premier” nature of the matchups does not seem to resonate with the fans..

The Thursday night games do make a great deal of sense in many ways, most particularly the ability to grow the NFL Network into a viable cable channel. There was always a belief that placing regular season games on the NFL Network would grow the cable carriage and no doubt it assisted with finally getting Time Warner as a carrier.

There needs to be a solution found that solves many of the current issues. The Pac-12 seems to have found a solution to their Thursday night games by making sure their institutions have a bye the weekend before they play on Thursday nights. The NFL can learn from this example.

Billick puts forth an idea that should be considered, as well. Add an eighteenth week to the season and make sure that is each team gets its bye prior to the Thursday night game. He points out that this gets the League to the President’s Day desired date for the Super Bowl. Certainly, this also gives the NFL its desired 18-week television schedule.

Immediately prior to the Cleveland Browns re-entering the NFL, there were 31 NFL teams, and teams were given a bye throughout the season (currently they exist from week four to eleven). It is still possible to give two teams a bye every week, except for the last week, and ensure time off before the Thursday night game. At issue would be the byes prior to the Thanksgiving games.

An emphasis has to be placed by the home teams to make the Thursday night games “special”. This would be much like the Monday night games of the early 1970s.

With the emphasis on player safety it will be extremely probable that key players injured on Sunday could not play on a Thursday, but if a bye existed they would have more chance of playing.

Thursday night NFL games are going to be a fixture in the sports landscape. As with any initial concept, there are issues, and there need to be solutions found that allow for competitive games, player safety and interest by the attending and viewing public. 

Former NFL Senior VP of Special Events Jim Steeg was responsible for changing the Super Bowl from a championship game into the event it is today. He also was the man who turned the NFL Draft from a behind-the-scenes meeting into a televised spectacle.