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Is It Time For The NFL To End Thursday Night Football?

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- The National Football League players hate it, the coaches hate it, the folks who do the scheduling hate it and the fans are lukewarm about it at best.

So why do we have Thursday Night Football again?

It wasn't such a big deal during the NFL Network's infancy, when there were only eight Thursday night games per season from 2006 through 2011. But the league expanded Thursday Night Football to a 13-game slate, and that doesn't count the three other games being played on Thanksgiving this year to give the NFL 16 Thursday games overall in 2013.

The Thursday games that the NFL broadcasts under the Thursday Night Football banner on the NFL Network are somewhat more special to the league because of the pure profit they represent. The NFL can't demand the nearly $5.50 per month that research firm SNL Kagan says ESPN gets per month from satellite and cable customers. It can, however, pull in a second-best $1.34 per month, up from less than $1 last year, after beefing up its slate of Thursday games. That alone should bring in more than $1.1 billion in revenue, or 56% more than the channel produced last year.

Meanwhile, the NFL has already seen enormous returns on NFL Network ad sales. In 2011, the last year of Thursday Night Football's eight-game slate, SNL Kagan says the network took in $99.6 million in ads. In 2012, that jumped to nearly $201 million thanks to extra games. RBC Capital Markets analyst David Bank projected in AdWeek that NFL Net will book as much as $335 million in ad sales commitments this year, a 67% gain.

This is the NFL just getting richer off of its most lucrative revenue stream. NFL games accounted for 31 out 32 of the most-watched TV broadcasts last fall and more than doubled the prime-time viewership of Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC. Through Oct. 23, the league had 10 games topping 20 million viewers -- a 400% increase from last season. NFL games ranked as the Top 16 most-watched shows since Labor Day, up from the Top 11 at the same time last season. Fox (FOXA), CBS> (CBS) and Comcast's> (CMCSA) NBC agreed to pay the NFL $28 billion for broadcast rights through 2022. Walt Disney's (DIS) ESPN has a separate $1.9 billion annual deal for Monday night football, while DirecTV (DTV) has a $1 billion per season agreement for the NFL Sunday Ticket package that is set to become even more lucrative once the current contract expires in 2015.

All told, $4.5 billion of the NFL's $9.5 billion in revenue last season came from television. So why are we asking what seems like a very foolish question about Thursday Night Football?

Because it isn't quite as it seems. This year's broadcasts, through Oct. 30, have drawn an average of 7.3 million viewers. That's up 12% from last year, but still lags well behind the 13.1 million viewers ESPN averaged during the same period for Monday Night Football. It's still regularly the most-watched program on cable on Thursday nights, but it came within only about 1 million viewers of History's second-place Pawn Stars Oct. 25. By contrast, Monday Night Football regularly triples the viewership of USA Network's WWE Monday Night Raw.
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