Fred Gaudelli was in good spirits on Wednesday evening, and it went well beyond his staying at an oceanfront resort in the Dominican Republic. The producer of Sunday Night Football had received a call earlier in the day from his boss, NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, relaying to him the games he would be producing for the 2014 regular season. The Sunday Night Football schedule is always tasty, but this year Gaudelli will have some extra gravy on Thanksgiving night -- an NFC championship game rematch between the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks and 49ers.
"You can make the case it is the most anticipated game of the year," Gaudelli said. "We are really excited about that game and for the first time ever, the best game on Thanksgiving is clearly going to be at night."
While most observers expected NBC to get a gilded schedule, the most interesting narrative heading into to Wednesday's NFL schedule release was how the league would treat the 16-game Thursday night package that is now a combo platter between CBS and NFL Network. At least on paper, the league delivered a much stronger package than they gave the NFL Network in previous years. The schedule features 14 divisional rivalries and opens with the Steelers at Ravens on Sept. 11. CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said he had hoped to get strong rivalry games involving major-market teams, given that those factors are key for sales and high viewership.
"I had indications early in the process that we would be given a good first game and this is a really good way to start it off," McManus said by phone Wednesday night. "Pittsburgh always travels well and I think their rivalry with the Ravens is right up their with any other NFL rivalry. I was also happy that we have the Patriots and Giants and a lot of high profile teams in major markets. For a first year schedule, we are satisfied. In future years as we grow into this -- we have a one-year deal but we are hoping we carry Thursday Night Football for many years -- I think as the league learns more about Thursday Night the schedule will be even better. But I'm satisfied and our sales people are satisfied."
Every network lobbies the league for marquee games, and that lobbying starts long before the Super Bowl. There is no more valuable sports programming than the NFL, and rights-holding executives consistently make their cases to Howard Katz, the league's schedule guru, whenever they see him.
"I would describe the lobbying as continual," Gaudelli said. "We obviously pick out the best 19 games we can knowing full well we are not going to get them. We start from there but Howard is an ethical guy and has a great amount of dignity. He is trying to put out not the best schedule for NBC but the best schedule for the National Football League. You have to be realistic. What you are trying to do is to top your ratings from last year."
That should happen for Sunday Night Football, which averaged 21.7 million viewers last season. Gaudelli said last year the average point differential of Sunday Night Football games heading into the fourth quarter was 14 points, so more competitive matchups will surely help the viewership number. He also said Sunday Night Football will benefit this year from most of baseball's postseason airing on cable prior to the World Series.
"I think our schedule is representative of what Sunday Night Football has been since the inception -- big, traditional rivalries, dotted with blockbuster games," Gaudelli said.
Someone who could impact NFL ratings for all partners is Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who will draw a lot of interest from viewers this season.
"Think back to two years ago to when RG3 had his sensational season and was a huge television draw," Gaudelli said. "We flexed them into a game in Week 17 and I would say that same possibility exists this year. Say Manziel goes to Houston, Cleveland or some place else and he becomes what many think he might become. I'd say there is a chance he might end up on Sunday Night Football."
Keep in mind a couple of provisions that should increase viewership this season. On Wednesday afternoon NFL.com reported that games can now be flexed into Sunday Night Football as early as Week 5. (Flex scheduling previously started in Week 11.) There is a stipulation, however, that the NFL can only flex two games total into Sunday night between Weeks 5-10. After Week 11, the NFL can flex any Sunday afternoon game into the Sunday night game. There's also a new "cross flex" mechanism where select games can be flexed between CBS and Fox. That's another strategy to give games broader distribution. The league will announce any changes no later than 12 days before the Sunday night games.
"Taking a step back if I was any of the other broadcast partners, I would be pretty satisfied with the schedule," McManus said. "I think the Fox schedule is really good and I think the other two primetime schedules are really good. With the extra complication of trying to increase the marquee value of Thursday night, I think the NFL did an amazing job not just for us but for all the broadcast partners."
Some NFL schedule broadcasting highlights:
• NBC's Sunday Night Football features 19 primetime regular season games, including the NFL kickoff opener on Sept. 4 when the Seahawks host the Packers.
• Every 2013 playoff team will appear on Sunday Night Football, with 16 of NBC's 18 scheduled games involving at least one playoff team from last season. The Broncos, Cowboys, Niners, Packers, Patriots and Seahawks will each appear three times on NBC broadcasts.
• Fox will air 97 regular-season games, with the Panthers appearing the most of any 2013 playoff team (11 times). The Giants and Seahawks make 10 appearances; the Bears, Cowboys, Niners and Packers will appear nine times each, and the Eagles appear eight times.
• Among Fox's most anticipated games: The Niners at Cowboys (Sept. 7), Eagles at Niners (Sept 28), and a mega-showdown between the Niners and Seahawks in Seattle on Dec. 14. Fox's Thanksgiving Day is the Eagles at Cowboys.
• Fox's national telecast of the Lions-Falcons on Oct. 26 will air live at 9:30 a.m. ET, the earliest U.S. kickoff in NFL history. The network will air a second game from London on Nov. 9 when Dallas plays Jacksonville at 1:00 p.m. ET.
• ESPN's Monday Night Football schedule opens with its annual doubleheader: Giants at Lions (7 p.m. ET) and Chargers at Cardinals (10:15 p.m.). The network will air a 17-game primetime schedule with eight teams (Bears, Colts, Eagles, Giants, Jets, Redskins, Saints and Steelers) making two appearances each.
• ESPN's schedule has 12 playoff teams from 2013. Its best regular-season games on paper: Eagles at Colts (Sept. 15) and Broncos at Bengals (Dec. 22).
• CBS has a 106 regular-season game broadcast schedule including a Super Bowl XLVIII rematch between the Broncos and Seahawks in Seattle (Sept. 21) and marquee games such as Broncos at Patriots (Nov. 2), Patriots at Packers (Nov. 30) and Colts at Cowboys (Dec. 21). "I'm as happy with our Sunday afternoon schedule as I have ever been since I took this job 18 years ago," said McManus. "As a practical matter there are more matchups in the NFC that have marquee value so it is really important to us that we keep as many of the top AFC games."
• In addition to its AFC package of games, CBS's schedule features the following NFC games: Carolina at Baltimore (Sept. 28), Chicago at Detroit (Thanksgiving Day) and Washington at San Francisco (Nov. 23). "There has not been an NFC game like Washington-San Francisco on CBS since we lost the NFC to Fox [in 1994]," McManus said. "Conversely, Fox is also getting some cross-over games in the AFC which will help them in markets they have not had access to. What the cross-flex has done is to take a game on Fox or CBS that would not get a lot of exposure because of the regionalization and put it on another network where a really high-quality game can get a lot of exposure."
• The most attractive Thursday Night Football games on paper looks to be the Giants at Redskins (Sept. 25), Saints at Panthers (Oct. 30), and Cowboys at Bears (Dec. 4).
• In case you missed it, which is usually hard given the network's armada of public relations staffers, the NFL playoffs will air on ESPN for the first time. The network has the rights to one of the wild card games (previously held by NBC). ESPN's usual Monday Night Football broadcasters (Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Lisa Salters) will call the telecast, which will air in January 2015. The 2015 NFL Pro Bowl (Jan. 25, 2015) also returns to ESPN this season as part of the company's new rights agreement with the league.
• The other postseason news involves NBC. For the first time since acquiring the Sunday Night Football package in 2006, NBC will televise an NFL divisional playoff game this upcoming season and each season thereafter through 2022. The game will alternate every year between an NFC and AFC game. The postseason will be big for NBC as they have the rights to Super Bowl XLIX from Arizona on Feb. 1, 2015.