Each weekend in autumn and early winter, hundreds of thousands of professional football fans sit down in front of their television set to watch their favorite NFL team in action. NFL broadcast contracts are some of the most popular and lucrative in all of professional sports and are governed by a set of rules created by the National Football League.
Unlike the other major professional sports, which rely on each team's regional television network to broadcast the vast majority of games, all NFL games are produced and broadcast by national networks, although not all games are aired coast-to-coast. Currently, there are five networks airing National Football League games: CBS, FOX, ESPN, NBC, and the league's own channel, the NFL Network. CBS and FOX have exclusive rights to air Sunday afternoon games, while NBC holds the rights air to air prime-time Sunday night contests. The league's famed Monday Night Football airs on ESPN, while the NFL Network broadcasts about eight games per year on Thursday and Saturday nights, excluding the Thursday night kickoff games on the season's opening week.
Each network negotiates its own contract with the league for its broadcast package. The value of the league's current television contracts, which expire in 2011, are worth more than $3.7 billion per year. The Monday Night Football contract alone is worth in excess of $1.1 billion.
Sunday Afternoon Broadcasts
There are two time slots, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Eastern time, for Sunday afternoon broadcasts. Each week, except the last week of the regular season, one of the Sunday broadcast networks, CBS and FOX, is designated to broadcast games in both time slots in each television market throughout the country, while the other network can broadcast one game per market in either the 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. time slot. In the final week of the season, each network can broadcast games in both time slots. This is to ensure the maximum number of games with playoff implications are broadcast in as many markets as possible.
Each network's affiliate can pick which game or games it wishes to broadcast, though the final decision ultimately lies with the network. Typically, an affiliate will select a game involving a team in its home market, such as the FOX station in New York selecting a game involving the New York Giants, or a game with regional interest, such as the CBS station in Syracuse selecting a game involving the Buffalo Bills. If a game involving a local or regional team is not available, a network will usually receive the contest designated as the national game, though in some instances an affiliate will pick another game--for example, a station in Dallas might pick a game involving the Cowboys' divisional rivals.
The one exception to the Sunday afternoon broadcast rules are for stations within the designated television market of an NFL team. If the local team's game is being broadcast on either CBS or FOX, the other network cannot broadcast a game in that time slot. For example, if the Minnesota Vikings are playing in a 1 p.m. game being aired in the Minneapolis market by FOX, the CBS station cannot air any game in that slot, even if CBS is designated as having doubleheader right. The Minneapolis CBS station would air only a single game that weekend in the 4 p.m. time slot.
All prime-time games, including those on Thursday, Sunday and Monday, are broadcast coast-to-coast by national networks. The networks that broadcast prime-time games hold exclusive rights to them. However, there is an exception in the NFL broadcasting rules for night games broadcast on cable stations, most notably ESPN and NFL Network. Those games can be broadcast on an over-the-air station within the designated television markets of the two teams playing. The over-the-air station receives the broadcast feed from the cable network and simulcasts it. This rule is in place to allow non-cable subscribers within a team's television market to watch the game.
The rule allowing over-the-air broadcast does not extend beyond the set boundaries of a team's television market. For example, with the New England Patriots, the over-the-air broadcast rights extend only to the Boston market and no where else within the region.
Other National Broadcasts
The league's traditional Thanksgiving games are broadcast nationally with networks, typically CBS and FOX, holding exclusive television rights for the game in their respective time slot. Starting in 2007, the league began televising a prime-time Thanksgiving night game on the NFL Network, and the league's over-the-air broadcast rules also apply for that game.
All playoff games are also broadcast nationally with each game being played in its own time slot. The broadcast rights to all playoff games are divided among the regular-season networks, with NBC holding the rights to broadcast the two Saturday games during wild card weekend. CBS has the rights to all other AFC playoff games, and FOX holds the rights to all other NFL playoff games, up to and including the conference championship games. The broadcast rights to the Super Bowl are rotated among the three networks.
Under certain circumstances a team's games are blacked out (not broadcasted) within its home television market. According to current NFL rules, all games, including postseason contests and excluding preseason exhibition games, must be sold out within 72 hours of kickoff or they cannot be televised in the market of the home team. This rule is in place to protect NFL teams and virtually assure them of sellouts.
A game blacked out in the home team's market can still be shown in the visiting team's television market or in any other around the country. In some instances, most notably with the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card round of the 2009 playoffs, the league has granted teams extensions to achieve a sellout and have the blackout restriction lifted.
Blackout restrictions also apply in the home team's market to nationally televised games that are broadcast over-the-air.
Satellite Subscription Services
The league's satellite subscription service, NFL Sunday Ticket, is available for purchase by DirecTV customers and gives subscribers access to all Sunday NFL games broadcast outside their area. For Sunday Ticket subscribers, all games aired by the local network affiliates are blacked out. Although it varies from week-to-week, the average Sunday Ticket subscriber will have access to about eight to 12 out-of-market broadcasts per week.
Unlike other sports subscription packages, NFL Sunday Ticket is available exclusively on DirecTV.
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