PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The National Football League hasn't scheduled a regular-season game on a Saturday afternoon in eight years. The last time it played a regular season game on a Saturday, the NFC-leading Atlanta Falcons pounded the 4-10 Detroit Lions in a 2012 Week 16 matchup that was the lowest-rated NFL game of the year for ESPN.
This year, there are no Saturday games on the schedule at all -- and that's a shame for everyone involved.
The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 gave the NFL its antitrust exemption and set the groundwork for its television blackout rule, but it also prevented the NFL from televising games on Saturdays during college football's regular season. When that season ended, the NFL used to make the most of it by broadcasting games on Saturday afternoons and evenings and taking advantage of the encroaching holiday season.
Since the inception of the NFL Network and the league's fascination with Thursday Night Football, the Saturday game has been relegated to the preseason and the playoffs. 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 in last year. That didn't count the three other games being played on Thanksgiving this year to give the NFL 16 Thursday games overall in 2013.
What Thursday Night Football offers the NFL that Saturday network broadcasts don't is a mainline of money it doesn't have to share with pesky partners. The NFL Network can't pull in the nearly $5.50 per month that research firm SNL Kagan says ESPN gets from satellite and cable customers. It can, however, fetch 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. That jumped last year 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.