NEW YORK — Remember the “NFL on TNT”? There could be a reboot in the next few years.
Turner Sports is considering a possible bid for NFL television rights in 2022 after the league’s current deals expire.
“We’re always looking at the NFL. Everyone looks at the NFL. You’d have to be crazy not to look at the NFL,” Will Funk, Turner’s executive vice president of property marketing and corporate partnerships, told Sporting News during Turner’s annual upfront presentation.
Funk, though, cautioned, “It’s got to be the right fit for us, like everything else we’re doing.”
A return to the NFL by TNT after an absence of two decades would make a lot of sense. Remember, TNT split the Sunday night package with ESPN from 1990-97.
Both Turner and ESPN must feel some envy when they see that “Sunday Night Football” has become the No. 1 prime-time show on NBC, and has been for six years running.
Turner Sports controls an array of blue-chip sports TV properties, including the NBA, Major League Baseball, NCAA March Madness and the PGA Tour. It also is in partnership with Bleacher Report. But no sports TV giant feels complete without the mighty NFL in its fall programming lineup, even if regular-season ratings slid 8 percent last season.
Just ask NBC and CBS. Both networks were desperate to return to pro football after they lost their respective NFL TV packages. NBC was so hard up, it teamed with World Wrestling Entertainment to launch the short-lived XFL in 2001.
Twenty years ago, TNT threw its top talent at its Sunday night coverage, including Verne Lundquist, Mark May and the late, great Craig Sager. Here’s the great Lundquist on the mic with May and Pat Haden in 1997:
The network was also one of the first to cater to fantasy football owners by adding a player stats crawl during its halftime show.
If TNT decides it wants back in, it would have to beat out at least one of the league’s current TV partners, namely CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and NFL Network. Those partners pay the NFL about $7 billion combined annually to broadcast its games. It’s hard to imagine those partners giving up their piece without a fight.
Then again, the market is changing rapidly. ESPN pays the most of any network TV partner — $1.9 billion annually — for its “Monday Night Football” package, but it has been losing millions of subscribers. In response, it has laid off anchors, reporters and producers to cut costs.
The good news for ESPN: After much campaigning, it appears to have been given a much stronger “MNF” slate for 2017. Nine of the 17 games on the schedule are divisional matchups.
Winning a piece of the NFL really put ESPN on the map in 1987. My guess is that the network’s president, John Skipper, will go to the mat to keep that piece. ESPN declined to comment for this story.
Forget about Fox’s piece becoming available. It has the NFC package, which means it has the Cowboys, the most popular NFL TV draw. During Fox’s upfront presentation, the network trotted out two Cowboys legends — No. 1 game analyst Troy Aikman and “Fox NFL Sunday” analyst Jimmy Johnson — to remind ad buyers of the network’s Cowboys connection.
NBC and CBS like the NFL so much, they split the arguably inferior “Thursday Night Football” package to add to their Sunday packages.
There’s also growing competition from the tech sector. The NFL cut a deal with Amazon Prime to take over its “TNF” package this season. Savvy sports media types have told me it’s only a matter of time before Amazon and other tech giants, such as Facebook and Google/YouTube, challenge networks for live sports rights — or at least partner with them, which will make negotiations that much more complicated.
If TNT wants to get back into the NFL TV game, it had better be ready to navigate that tough road.