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.
But it's just not Saturday -- or even Monday night. This year's Thursday Night Football broadcasts, through last week, have drawn an average of 7.7 million viewers. That's up 11% from last year, but still lags well behind the more than 13 million viewers ESPN averaged during the same period for Monday Night Football. Oh, and remember that underperforming Saturday night game from last year we told you about? That lackluster Dec. 22 matchup still pulled in 9.7 million viewers, or 26% more than theThursday Night Football</> average.
Back on Aug. 25, a Saturday night preseason matchup between the St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos drew 5.7 million viewers to CBS. That's a Saturday during the waning days of summer for a game that's basically a tryout for backups. Compare that with the Oct. 24 regular-season Thursday Night Football matchup between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers that couldn't top 4.6 million viewers. That may not have been a great matchup, but it had divisional and playoff implications and didn't have to compete with anyone's summer vacation.
It make you wonder what the NFL could do with a premier matchup on an extra weekend day, but we already have that answer. At the low end, the NFL drew 23.6 million viewers for its AFC Wild Card showdown between the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans and 30.3 million for the NFC Wild Card matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers the same day. That first example wouldn't crack the NFL's Top 10 Sunday Broadcasts but it would still fall among the 20 most-watched games of this regular season. That second game would rank near the top of this year's offerings, but would still trail the 34 million who tuned in to watch the Broncos and New England Patriots in late November.
While it's tough to compare playoffs with regular-season matchups without noting a whole bunch of key disparities, we'll note that the average of roughly 33 million people who tuned in to watch the NFC and AFC Divisional playoff games played on Saturdays in January might provide just a hint of a Saturday broadcast's potential. Considering that the Packers' rematch of that Saturday playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers drew nearly 29 million viewers on a Sunday this season, we'll say the idea isn't so far-fetched.
So what would be the NFL's motivation to return some games to Saturday? The same that spawned the Thursday Night Football that replaced those Saturday matchups: stadiums full of money.
Without Saturday games, the NFL got Fox, CBS and Comcast's NBC to pay $28 billion for broadcast rights through 2022. Walt Disney's ESPN has a separate $1.9 billion annual deal for Monday Night Football that could get a lot sweeter if the sports leader spurned college bowls for some Saturday NFL action and ratings.
All told, $4.5 billion of the NFL's $9.5 billion in revenue last season came from television. So why wouldn't it take the bigger audience and tone down Thursday Night Football? Because that less-popular latter option isn't confined to the last few weeks of the season. Besides, it's also helped increase the NFL Networ'k's subscriber base from 63.2 million homes last season to 69.7 million this year -- which only means more money from subscribers and sponsors it doesn't have to split with a network.
In short, a late-season slate of Saturday games would be pretty sweet for NFL fans, but not for a league obsessed with branding and cash. Next week's Thursday Night Football matchup between the Broncos and San Diego Chargers is the NFL's last of the season before cramming the rest of its regular-season games into Sundays and Mondays. It would be nice if the league spread some of the wealth to Saturdays during that span, but there's a better chance of the league bringing back leather helmets than giving networks an extra weekend day or undermining the integrity of its Thursday nights.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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