NFL’s controversial 'Thursday Night Football' flex scheduling decision reflects league's priorities

EAGAN, Minn. — An NFL proposal that narrowly failed in March has now passed.

NFL TV watchers, rejoice. NFL game attendees: beware.

NFL team owners approved a proposal that will allow Thursday night games to be flexed to Sunday and vice versa.

The proposal, as of now for just the 2023 season, will carry some of the same restrictions that games flexed in and out of the Sunday night slot have already held. Flexes are permitted during only the final five eligible weeks of the regular season — Weeks 13 to 17, as "Thursday Night Football" isn’t on the Week 18 schedule. No more than two games per season can be flexed. And no team can be flexed in or out of a Thursday slot more than once.

Still, the proposal was controversial.

NFL team owners including the New York Giants’ John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Art Rooney blasted a version of this proposal in March. They were two of eight owners to vote against the proposal Monday.

The top concern: What about fans scheduling travel to games … only for the game to later be moved three days earlier or later?

Hans Schroeder, the NFL’s executive vice president and chief operating officer of NFL Media, said fans were already accustomed to shifting schedules from "Sunday Night Football" and "Monday Night Football" flex options in place.

“We have Week 18 games, where all games are listed as ‘TBDs’ and could go any time on Saturday afternoon or Sunday,” Schroeder said. “And we have wild-card, divisional and playoff games that could get scheduled on short notice. So I don’t want fans to think we aren’t going to be sensitive to that and won’t do our best to communicate thoroughly and as early as we can.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 21: Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, signs autographs for fans prior to the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Dallas Cowboys at Arrowhead Stadium on November 21, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

Does a Thursday night flex help or hurt fans?

The timeline of that communication was a sticking point for some team owners. In March, the vote proved two short of the 24 necessary to approve. Changing the advance notice requirement from 15 days’ minimum to 28 swayed club owners.

A smattering of team owners and presidents alike argued at league meetings that far more fans are impacted by television offerings than in-game experiences.

They thus view this as a fan-friendly decision.

“Very important point to everybody in that room,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “Every owner in that room lives and breathes sensitivity to his fans. And he knows how important each and every one of them are.

“But only 7 percent of our fans have ever been inside a stadium — 7 percent. And so we’ve got a lot of fans, a huge majority of the fans out there, and this is good for them.”

With league broadcast deals and viewership metrics heavily influencing the league’s bottom line, so, too, will they heavily influence scheduling decisions.

“We’re also trying to balance how we make sure, on the other side, that we’re getting the right games into the right windows,” Schroeder said. “That’s something we’re always going to weigh heavily and take into decisions any time we flex very seriously.

“So from a fan perspective, watch, keep your eyes out, know there are more and more games particularly later in the year that have potential to move.”

Thousands of fans attending the games would find themselves with travel complications. For that reason, and other operational considerations, Schroeder says the bar for a schedule change will be higher than Sunday and Monday flex scenarios.

“It’s going to have to be a situation where it’s really clear and really apparent that the game shouldn’t stay on a standalone basis on Thursday night,” Schroeder said.

Is the new frontier here?

The relative impact of this move may prove less substantial than the public outcry would suggest, with at most two occurrences per year.

Still, the messages it sends blare loudly: The philosophy driving this decision prioritizes broadcast product over stadium product. Is the NFL also, perhaps, prioritizing streaming relationships over its traditional television partnerships?

First, the league announced last week that it will exclusively livestream a playoff game this postseason. Peacock, NBC’s streaming arm, will air a prime-time Saturday wild-card game.

Now, a nod to ensure "Thursday Night Football" thrives streaming on Amazon.

Schroeder said the league will be “very respectful of our arrangements and commitments to CBS and Fox.”

But even the company line doesn’t deny the increasing importance of streaming.

“The reality everyone lives with is that the world is moving toward streaming, and you’ll see that most households have a mix of traditional television and streaming,” Schroeder said. “Our game packages reflect that reality.”