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NFL on Television

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


The television rights to the National Football League are the most lucrative (and most expensive) rights of any sport available. In fact, it was television that brought pro football into prominence in the modern era of technology. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights.



Broadcast era

The "Greatest Game Ever Played" boosted the popularity of the NFL on television

From the very beginning of the television era, NBC was a prime innovator in football coverage. They became the first major television network to cover an NFL game, when in 1939 they televised a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1950 the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins televised all their home and road games. The DuMont Network televised the 1951 NFL championship across the entire United States. In 1955 NBC became the televised home to the league championship game. The 1958 championship game played at Yankee Stadium went into sudden death overtime. This game, known since as the "Greatest Game Ever Played," was seen by many throughout the country and is credited with increasing the popularity of pro football in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

CBS took over television coverage of the NFL in 1956, while in 1960 the American Football League was first covered by ABC. This was the first-ever cooperative television plan for professional football, in which the proceeds of the contract were divided equally among member clubs.

Both CBS and NBC televised Super Bowl I in January 1967. In 1970 the NFL began playing one game per week on Monday night. ABC aired its first edition of Monday Night Football on September 21, 1970. MNF itself pushed the limits of football coverage with its halftime highlights segment, occasional banter from Howard Cosell and Dennis Miller, and celebrity guests such as John Lennon and President Clinton. Today, Monday Night Football consistently ranks among the most popular primetime broadcasts each week during the NFL season.

Each of the three major networks had their own talent. Announcers such as Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Al Michaels (from ABC); Pat Summerall and John Madden (from CBS); and Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Marv Albert, Jim Simpson, Kyle Rote and Jim Lampley (from NBC), all had their own unique analysis of the game. Even the individual networks' football coverage was innovative. For example, CBS' The NFL Today was the first pre-game show to have a female co-hostess, (Phyllis George); and NBC made history in the 1980s with announcerless football, one-announcer football, and even the first female play-by-play football announcer (which in its own way, set the mold for female sportscasters of today).

The Super Bowl is a yearly ratings blockbuster for the network that airs it, allowing it to generate millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Four of the ten highest rated television broadcasts of all-time (in the US) are Super Bowls. [1]

Expansion to cable

The middle of the 1980s ushered in the cable era, and in 1987, ESPN became the first cable network to broadcast NFL games. Chris Berman helped redefine the pre- and post-game shows when he launched NFL Countdown and NFL Primetime, and they have since become the top-rated pre- and post-game shows on television. ESPN's contract to show National Football League games on Sunday evenings marked a turning point for ESPN, transforming it from a smaller cable TV network to a marketing empire.

For a few years in the 1990s, Turner's TNT network broadcast Sunday night games for the first half of the season before ESPN took it over full-time in 1998.

Broadcast re-alignment

In December 1993, CBS (which had been home to National Conference games for 38 years) lost their rights to then fledging Fox Network. Fox offered a then-record $1.58 billion to the NFL over four years for the rights, significantly more than the $290 million CBS was willing to pay. Fox was only seven years old and had no sports division, but it began building its own coverage by hiring many former CBS personalities such as Summerall and Madden. Fox's NFL rights ownership made the network a major player in American television by giving it many new viewers (and affiliates) and a platform to advertise its other shows. In the meantime, CBS lost several affiliates, and ratings for its other programming languished.

NBC's rebound in the ratings in both the 1980s and 1990s (after years in the bottom of the ratings cellar) were attributed in part to its continuing coverage of the NFL. But with television contract re-negotiations in early 1998 ushering in the era of multi-billion dollar broadcasting agreements, an era of pro football broadcasting would soon came to an unceremonious conclusion. CBS, stung by Fox's surprise bid four years earlier, aggressively sought to reacquire some broadcasting rights. CBS agreed to pay $4 billion over eight years ($500 million per season) to air American Conference games. NBC, meanwhile, had indicated a desire to bid for Monday Night Football rights in 1998, but gave up when the financial stakes skyrocketed. And so, after six decades, NBC, the network that helped define pro football on television, lost its rights to air the NFL, thus marking the beginning of a slow (and continuing) decline for the Peacock network's sports division.

Fox extended its National Conference deal by agreeing to a $4.4 billion contract ($550 million per season), which included rights to half the Super Bowls during that time. Meanwhile, ABC retained its longtime rights to Monday Night Football by also paying $4.4 billion over eight years. ESPN agreed to a $4.8 billion ($600 million a season) deal to become the sole cable broadcaster of NFL games. All the eight-year deals last through the 2005 season.

NFL broadcasting today...and in the future

Today, despite annual financial losses, CBS continues to air its American Conference package, FOX airs National Conference games, ESPN still airs Sunday night games, and ABC has its Monday Night Football franchise. The current NFL television contract ends with the 2005 season

Increasingly, advertising revenue is unable to meet the cost incurred by the purchase of broadcast rights. This had lead many commentators to suggest that the market for broadcast rights has peaked, and is likely to decline. Indeed, Rupert Murdoch commented in 2002, after his FOX Broadcasting unit wrote off some US$1.5 billion in NFL-related costs, that "the prices being paid for sports have gone beyond an economic level."

Nonetheless, the next group of broadcast contracts, which begin with the 2006-07 season, will result in a sizeable increase in total rights fees. Both FOX and CBS have renewed their Sunday afternoon broadcast packages through 2011, in both cases with modest increases. Monday Night Football, on the other hand, will move to ESPN, with the Disney-owned network paying a large sum of $1.1 billion per year from 2006 to 2014 for the rights to the lucrative franchise. Meanwhile, NBC, after losing their AFC package to CBS in 1997, has reclaimed its share of the NFL broadcast rights with a deal worth an average of $650 million per year from 2006 to 2012 that will give them the Sunday night package as well as as the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl in 2009 and 2012, a likely means of reversing its current ratings slump.

Despite relatively high, if declining, TV ratings, ABC has lost significant sums of money on Monday Night Football and decided to end its relationship with the NFL. In addition to the fees issue, part of this decision may have been the result of a resurgent ABC primetime entertainment schedule during the 2004-05 season, particularly on Sunday evening; thus ABC would be unable to satisfy the league's reported preference for a Sunday night game on broadcast television as opposed to Monday.

The NFL is still considering a separate package for late-season Thursday and Saturday nights.

The style of pro football broadcasting is ever changing, with its female hostesses/sideline reporters, visual first-down markers, advanced graphics, and new multi-camera angles, all of which will carry football telecasts into the new century.

Television and blackout policies

Since 1973, the NFL has maintained a blackout policy that states that a home game cannot be televised locally if it is not sold out within 72 hours prior to its start time. According to the league, the policy is to ensure a sellout, and to make televised games more attractive to viewers by showing a filled up stadium.

Prior to 1973, all home games were blacked out locally regardless if they were sold out or not. Although that policy was successfully defended in court numerous times, Congress (aided by politicians who wanted to watch locally televised Washington Redskins games) passed legislation requiring the NFL to impose the 72-hour deadline.

The NFL defines "locally" as within a 75-mile radius of the stadium. Therefore, a TV blackout not only affects the home team's primary media market (the market in which the team is physically located), but also any other media market whose broadcast signal penetrates into the 75-mile radius.

However, all team road games must be telecast back to that team's home territory. In addition, due to the incident involving the Heidi Game, any home or away game that is televised into the team's media market must be televised in its entirety.

Another policy to ensure a filled up stadium is to limit the amount of Sunday afternoon games that are televised in a team's primary media market. This is to ensure that a soldout game is televised unopposed to any other NFL game, and thus prevent ticket holders from opting to not show up and instead watch the other locally televised NFL game. Normally all markets receive three games during the afternoon: two telecasts by the network (either CBS or FOX) televising the doubleheader (i.e. broadcasting two games during the day) and one game by the network that is broadcasting a single game. The network with the doubleheader televises a game in the "early time slot" (1pm ET/10am PT) and the other game in the "late time slot" (4:15 ET/1:15pm PT). The other network's game is broadcast in either the early or late time slot.

But when a team's home game is on the network that only is broadcasting one game, the club's primary market will only receive two games, one game on FOX and one game on CBS. However, three games may be broadcast in the home team's primary market, but only if the home game is being televised by the doubleheader network, and if the game is sold out before the 72-hour deadline. Then the home team's match will be broadcast while the two other games will be televised in the other early or late time slot.

Critics claim that these television policies are not really effective in creating sold out, filled stadiums. Rather, there are other factors that cause non-sellouts, such as high ticket prices and the fact that people do not want to support a losing team. Furthermore, these critics contend that TV blackouts actually hurt the league; without the TV exposure, it becomes more difficult for teams to increase their popularity and following.

NFL Network and NFL Films

NFL Network logo
NFL Network logo

In 2003 the NFL launched its own specialty channel, the NFL Network. The new channel's coverage focuses on the NFL (as would be expected), although it will also be used to screen Canadian Football League games as per the terms of a working agreement with the CFL that was renewed in 2004.

NFL Films, which provides game films to media outlets for highlight shows, is owned by the NFL.

The NFL's status as a prime offering by the networks has led some to conclude that unbiased coverage of the league is not possible. ESPN attempted to run a dramatic series showing seamier aspects of pro football, Playmakers, but dropped the series after the league threatened to exclude the network from carrying its games. "NFL Films", though technically superb, with stunning action shots, essentially produces commercials for the NFL.


  1. ^ Top 10 Network Telecasts of All Time from Nielsen Media Research

The National Football League

Buffalo BillsBaltimore RavensHouston TexansDenver Broncos
Miami DolphinsCincinnati BengalsIndianapolis ColtsKansas City Chiefs
New England PatriotsCleveland BrownsJacksonville JaguarsOakland Raiders
New York JetsPittsburgh SteelersTennessee TitansSan Diego Chargers
Dallas CowboysChicago BearsAtlanta FalconsArizona Cardinals
New York GiantsDetroit LionsCarolina PanthersSt. Louis Rams
Philadelphia EaglesGreen Bay PackersNew Orleans SaintsSan Francisco 49ers
Washington RedskinsMinnesota VikingsTampa Bay BuccaneersSeattle Seahawks
2005 NFL season
NFL seasons | NFL playoffs | AFC Championship Game | NFC Championship Game | The Super Bowl | Super Bowl Champions
NFL lore | NFL on television | The Pro Bowl | NFLPA | AFL | AFL-NFL Merger | NFL Europe | Defunct NFL teams

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