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.

Lackluster performance, in itself, is no reason to take down a cash cow such as Thursday Night Football. Especially not when it's helped increase the NFL Networ'k's subscriber base from 63.2 million homes last season to 69.7 million this year. The damage to the athletes that network is broadcasting, however, just might be worth a second look.

Last year, a combination of Monday and Thursday games forced the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens to play four games in a 17-day span. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was on that team and now plays with the San Francisco 49ers, told the San Jose Mercury News last month that the "the league is covering their butt" on issues of player safety related to Thursday games.

"I mean if you're so concerned about player safety, then why do you have every team in the league playing on Thursday night when they just competed on a Sunday, knowing how difficult it is for guys to get back to being healthy after playing on Sunday?" he asked. "Guys really don't feel like they're back till probably Thursday or Friday to prepare for that next week."

With the league already under fire for its handling of player concussions and the deaths of former players who suffered from head injuries -- as well as its long-rumored plan to expand the regular season to 18 games from its current 16 -- player complaints about injury aren't taken lightly. Coaches aren't exactly enamored of it either, with Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians venting about Thursday games last year while coaching the Indianapolis Colts.

"The recovery time from Sunday to Thursday is ridiculous, especially after playing a very physical game, and then to have to travel," Arians told the Fort Wayne News Sentinel. " Playing Thursday is great for television. It's great for the NFL Network, obviously. But I think it's very, very taxing on these athletes, especially when we talk so much about player safety."

Another analysis came earlier this year from Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, whose team played a Thursday night game against the New York Giants in October. Cutler sustained a groin injury in his next game -- his third game in 14 days -- and is expected to spend weeks recovering.

"Physically just being able to go out there full speed on Thursday is a challenge," Cutler told the National Football Post. "It's hard to win in this league especially on a Thursday."

Cutler's Bears won that Thursday game, but lost their quarterback for a large chunk of the season. Doctors have indicated that such a short turnaround between games can yield more injuries, but the NFL says it has seen no evidence that Thursday Night Football has increased player fragility.

Until it does, there is no way that the NFL is going to close the gates to the dump trucks full of money that keep showing up Thursday nights.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post,, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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