Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (34) fumbles after… (Matthew Emmons / US Presswire )
The National Football League is proceeding with plans to introduce a Thursday night package of prime-time games that could start as early as the 2012 season.
The move comes as the NFL continues efforts to reach a deal with players on a new labor agreement before the start of the new fall season.
An additional television package had been expected as part of the league's push to expand the regular season to 18 games from 16. That idea met with such resistance from NFL players that the league has tabled it for now, but the league plans to move some existing games to Thursday nights.
An NFL spokesman declined to comment on the plan.
The new eight-game package would be for the first half of the season. The NFL's own cable channel, the NFL Network, already has an eight-game schedule for the second half. Besides the NFL Network, other potential bidders include Comcast Corp., which owns the sports channel Versus; Turner Broadcasting, which owns TNT and other channels that could carry games; and News Corp., parent of Foxand the cable channel FX.
Currently, the league gets more than $4.5 billion in annual rights fees from Fox, NBC, CBS, ESPN, DirecTV and the NFL Network. Another prime-time cable deal could be worth more than $500 million.
An increase in the number of networks carrying games will probably lead the current rights holders to seek some sort of concession from the NFL when they negotiate their next contracts after the 2013 television season.
The addition of more evening games could dilute the value of the other contracts. The winning bidder for the new package will want big games, which means the incumbents would lose some marquee matchups.
A reduction in rights fees seems unlikely given how strong the NFL's television ratings have been the last few years. There are other ways the league can compensate the veteran rights holders, including allowing the networks to increase the number of commercials in the games.
Although the NFL is coming off a tremendous season in terms of TV ratings and will have no shortage of potential bidders, adding another package of games risks overexposing the sport and potentially devaluing its own brand.