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The ‘Thursday Night Football’ Flex Proposal Is a Reminder the NFL Is a Business

Despite flagship franchises such as the Giants, Steelers, Packers and Bears voting against the idea, the league wants to appease streaming partners.

As we discussed his feelings about playing on Thursday nights, recently retired Patriots safety Devin McCourty stopped me as I recounted his circumstances last year. Almost by accident, I’d quickly brushed over that New England actually did play two Thursday Night Football games in 2022, and said that, with those games coming in consecutive weeks (Thanksgiving and Dec. 1), the damage was mitigated, since there was only one short week.

Turns out, even that wasn’t really cool with McCourty and his teammates.

It meant where he and other older Patriot vets would normally get the so-called “minibye,” on the back end of playing two games in five days, they’d have to wait another week instead. And that minibye would be extended by a day, then followed by a Monday-Sunday-Saturday turn, throwing a Molotov cocktail into routines players spend years curating to get themselves ready on a weekly basis.

“Usually, when we get Thursday night games, we battle it out, and Bill [Belichick] will always say, We gotta press forward and take everything else off the table for these next two weeks, give all we got and then we’ll get some rest on the back end,” McCourty said over the phone Saturday. “We didn’t get that, and that to me wasn’t normal. Because that’s what it was. We had Thursday to Thursday, then a Monday night game to a Saturday game.

“It was just so awkward. Because if you just play the Thursday night game and then you go back to a regular Sunday, to me, it becomes normal again. Like, All right, I’ll push through this and now, we’ll be back on a normal routine. Once you mess that up, I think it’s harder.”

Last week at the NFL’s annual meeting, owners proposed doing more than messing that up.

They looked at throwing the whole thing into a blender.

And no less a star than Patrick Mahomes reacted quickly, and not positively.

Devin McCourty hits Josh Allen near the pylon on Thursday Night Football between the Patriots and Bills.

McCourty meets Josh Allen before the end zone on a Thursday game in 2022.

The result, for now, is compromise. On Wednesday, owners took a proposal to allow flex scheduling for TNF in Weeks 14 to 17, and split it into two—one that would allow for teams to play multiple TNF games in a single season, and not always in back-to-back weeks, and another for flex scheduling. Owners voted through the former, 29–3, with the Giants, Bears and Raiders voting against it. They unofficially shot down the latter, with 22 yes votes, eight no votes and abstentions from the Panthers and Broncos.

How they got there is pretty fascinating.

The proposal for flexing TNF games promised teams 28 days’ warning if they could be flexed and 15 days’ notice that the move was actually being made. It was approved unanimously by the broadcast committee and the ventures committee, which brought it to the floor for discussion at the Arizona Biltmore.

When it got there, Giants owner John Mara was first to speak—giving an impassioned, sometimes-angry speech about how there isn’t any need to do this and how it’d only alienate the league’s most avid fans (those who actually attend games). Bucs owner Joel Glazer, a member of the broadcast committee, countered him, while Steelers owner Art Rooney II and Bears chairman George McCaskey spoke up to back up the points Mara made.

After that, Panthers owner David Tepper asked a simple question: Is Amazon complaining?

It was then explained that the league had seen the audience numbers during the season’s stretch run, and there were games where the ratings weren’t just low—there were games people weren’t tuning in for at all. Tepper then told the room that he’d vote for it if the league could promise 28 days’ notice not that a game could be moved, but that it would be moved (the proposal, again, offered only 15). NFL chief media officer Brian Rolapp responded that the league couldn’t promise that because of agreements with Fox and CBS.

Broncos CEO Greg Penner then said he’d vote for only the proposal with 28 days’ notice. The Vikings’ Mark and Zygi Wilf asked whether the league could guarantee that, with the changes, no team would be forced to play away Sunday and again Thursday. They were told that’d be a difficult thing for the NFL to promise.

After that, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt stepped in and offered another compromise: Instead of four weeks of TNF flexes in 2023, the league could do only two weeks. Others then asked whether they could get 28 days’ notice and just two flexes for Year 1. That calmed down the room, and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie suggested splitting the proposal apart and voting on the two aspects of it separately.

That left everyone where they are now—with the prospect of having to play on multiple short weeks in 2023, without knowing yet whether they’ll have to do it on the fly.

The first thing you need to know is that this sort of back-and-forth, while it got heated, isn’t all that unusual for these sorts of meetings.

“I’ve been in that room where they fight amongst each other, like with the St. Louis litigation,” says one exec. “I’d say once John went so hard in the beginning, I feel like everyone else who took the mic after said, Hey, John, we understand you, we hear you, and while we agree it’s tough, this is a business decision. Everyone was very polite. It never became a shouting match with one versus the other.”

Which, really, is the second thing you should know: This is a business decision.

The inconvenient truth for the NFL is that Amazon stepped up for the league at a point when it was having trouble finding anyone willing to pay its price for TNF. (Fox willingly walked away from the package.) Likewise, selling off Sunday Ticket wasn’t easy, and it took a long time for the league to get to where it wanted to be with YouTube. And if the league believes these streaming partners are the future of broadcast media (and it does), it needs to make those partners happy, especially considering these packages are up for bid again in seven years.

Which means the NFL needs its product to be a needle-mover for streaming partners to get more services in and bidding on its different packages.

So on Tepper’s question, it’s not in Amazon’s best interest for the streaming service to get a game-changing boom for the many bucks it gave the NFL. It’s imperative for the league that Amazon receives that sort of impact too, to set up its future in that space, and to get companies like Apple—companies that weren’t all that enthusiastic the last time around—interested.

And then, on the other side of this, you’ve got the players, many of whom already consider playing on Thursday a heavy burden (older players especially, with some younger players liking the extra time off on the back end). McCourty told me that, just to get himself in position to play on a normal Thursday, he’d have to start planning for Sundays ahead of time. He was always worried about getting out of the previous Sunday’s game healthy.

He recalls one Sunday game where he experienced a thigh contusion, and it took daily, intensive massages for him to suit up four days later.

“The thing that I learned over my career was I had to start to develop a Thursday night routine,” he says. “It started Sunday. Like after the game Sunday, guys might go out, grab a beer or two, or just hang out with the guys. When you have that Thursday night game, you really can’t do that. You gotta turn the page. There were [some weeks], Sunday after the game, I get the hot tub, cold tub, try to be like, All right, let me think about the practice week.

“When you know you’re on a Thursday practice week, you have to get your body kind of turned around that way. I would say it takes thought and developing the process to be able to be successful—and really sometimes to just make it to that game, honestly.”

And, McCourty continues, it’d only be harder deeper into the season, because “everybody has something—something—that they’re dealing with. So even if you make it through both of those games, usually whatever you’re dealing with gets worse.”

Which is, really, another part of the problem here. If the NFL goes forward with the flex (and with flagship franchises like the Giants, Steelers, Packers and Bears having voted against it, getting the flex through in May is no sure thing) then it’s the best teams in the league that’ll be affected, because they’ll be the ones flexed into those windows.

That, it stands to reason, could affect who plays in those crucial games, because of the quick turnaround and also what contending teams look like going into the playoffs.

Of course, that isn’t really what the NFL is most wrapped up in—even if it was raised in the room that the proposal seemed rushed and that it wasn’t yet fully vetted by the competition or player health and safety committees. Everyone in the room knew why this was so important to commissioner Roger Goodell, who lobbied hard to get it through over the course of the week and presented data showing there weren’t more injuries on Thursdays to make his case. Many outside the room know the score, too.

The NFL, of course, is a business.

“I’m not surprised because some of those Thursday night games at the end of the year … I’m really into football, and I’m watching another TV show instead,” McCourty says. “As a player, you care about player safety. But when we get in our meetings, and we’re talking about the money and making XYZ, that all plays a part. And as much as those TV deals go up, the cap goes up, players make more money, it all kind of goes hand in hand.

“But I think you alluded to it—I don’t think we can turn it into just a money thing. Because then guys are gonna get hurt, and they’re going to get hurt at a high level.”

Last week, the NFL showed us that’s a risk it’s willing to take.

In May, we’ll see how far it’s willing to take that risk.