Welcome to MorganWick.com! This is the official site for all of Morgan Wick's projects, writings, and other cool stuff. Find out more about Morgan Wick and about this site.

Start browsing this site by using the links to the left to get to one of the MorganWick.com subsites. Or navigate Da Blog using the elements on both the left and the right.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 11

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Selected game: New England @ Denver.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Selected game: Philadelphia @ Dallas.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Selected game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Selected game: Philadelphia @ Seattle.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 5-5 v. 8-2. Not terrible, exactly, and the Ravens are actually tied for the second wild card, but still a bit lopsided and the Steelers-Ravens rivalry has seen better days.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants (FOX).
  • Other possible games: The general manager of the Coliseum is now on record saying that “there are no restrictions on the venue playing host to a Sunday night game”, but Vikings-Panthers remains a game the league (if not NBC) might prefer to Eagles-Rams even without the Eagles’ one-loss status, if CBS didn’t protect it. Seahawks-Jaguars remains a game that would be a strong option if one of the teams wasn’t the Jags.
  • Analysis: The Ravens play on Monday night against a beatable Texans team and if they win (and possibly even if both they and the Steelers lose) it’s hard to imagine this game losing its spot. But if the game becomes more lopsided, 9-2 v. 8-3, as either Eagles-Rams or Vikings-Panthers could be, would be very difficult to pass up, even though Ravens-Steelers would still have playoff implications for both teams.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 5-5 v. 4-6, but as usual it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks would be a good choice to flex in under more ideal circumstances. Any other games would involve going to teams below .500, and Dolphins-Bills, Cardinals-Trumps, Texans-Jaguars, and even Bengals-Vikings aren’t that appealing even then; certainly they wouldn’t overcome the tentative game bias even if the Cowboys weren’t involved.

Week 17 (December 31):

AFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (4-6)
WEST
46-4
56-4
2 teams at 4-6
SOUTH
37-3
65-5
6-4
EAST
28-2
5-5
5-5
NORTH
18-2
3-7
5-5 3-7
NFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (4-6)
WEST
47-3
57-3
6-4
SOUTH
38-2
66-4
7-3
NORTH
28-2
6-4
6-4 6-4
EAST
19-1
5-5
5-5 5-5
  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Panthers-Falcons, Jaguars-Titans, Packers-Lions, Bills-Dolphins, Cowboys-Eagles, Cardinals-Seahawks.

An Open Answer to @mcuban: You Can’t End Tribalism, You Can Only Hope to Contain – Or Harness – It


The first thing that needs to be said about this is that this would have been a lot easier to achieve a few years ago. Throughout Da Blog’s history I’ve made a number of different posts looking for common ground between left and right, and calling for neutral media outlets like CNN to be bipartisan, not nonpartisan, in order to force each side’s extremists to reckon with each other. But with the advent of Donald Trump, I’m no longer sure it’s possible to achieve the things I was hoping to achieve, or even that it would have necessarily been productive.

More on the “productive” point in a later post, but for now I’ll say that the second thing that needs to be said is that, in some sense, the very term used – tribalism – is itself an answer to the question. It’s a very deep, human drive, far deeper than any of the hallmarks of modern individualist democracy. Part of the reason you haven’t seen it play out too much within American politics until recent years is that until fairly recently it was turned against forces outside the United States, whether the Soviet Union or whatever else, and even when we might get along with other parts of the country or world in areas that matter we hate their guts in sports. We’re hardwired to form groups and distrust or actively hate those outside those groups; it’s what helped us get where we are as a species.

The third thing that needs to be said is that, even discounting that, only the left and center is concerned about ending tribalism. The right is addicted to Fox News, talk radio, and other right-wing sources of news that tells them there’s nothing wrong with their own politics and the problem is all those dastardly liberals out there, and distrusts anything outside that bubble as part of the vast liberal conspiracy to undermine America’s conservative norms. So long as the left wants to embrace bipartisanship but the right remains distrustful of their motives, the left merely becomes a tool to help the right ramrod their politics down the throats of the rest of America. Until the right is willing to become as introspective as the left, the left’s only recourse is to become as tribalistic as the right.

I bring that up last because it brings me to the fourth and perhaps most important thing that needs to be said: there is no motivation for the right to become more introspective, or for Republican politicians or right-wing media to encourage or engage in such introspection. Why would they? They control the White House and both houses of Congress and are one death or retirement away from setting the course of the Supreme Court for a generation – and not only that, despite the historic unpopularity of both Donald Trump and Congress, it would be nearly miraculous for Democrats to take control of either house in 2018, thanks to gerrymandering of House districts and a Democratic wave election five years ago leaving the Democrats with few opportunities to gain Senate seats and plenty of opportunities to lose them. The Republicans have, in theory, rigged the system to all but insulate them from any accountability, to the point of stretching our democracy to the breaking point. In their mind, the only constituents that matter are their extremists, and for many Republican politicians, the only election that matters is the Republican primary. There is no price for stoking tribalism, there are only huge rewards. The left is left to appeal to “norms” and “morals” and to the notion that what the Republicans have done is “wrong”, words that seem hollow in the wake of the Republicans’ success. When the Republican base doesn’t care about the left’s “norms”, and the Republican party sees little to no negative consequences for flouting them, do those “norms” really exist in any substantial, practical form?

Getting back to the second point, the only reason we’ve managed to escape the problem of tribalism for so long is the “norms” preventing any political movement from exploiting it. Now that those “norms” have been breached, there’s no way of simply closing Pandora’s box, of simply putting the cork back in the bottle. Strip away the “norms”, the unspoken covenant governing American politics for 200 years and (with the exception of four or five years in the 1860s) preventing the American experiment from cracking up along ideological lines, and you’re left with a rather thin patchwork of laws and a Constitution written for a federation of thirteen mini-nations much closer together in relative population than today’s states, and one written with a complete ignorance of my second point. Indeed, the Founders outright disdained political parties and other “factions” but did little to prevent or accommodate their existence, opening the door for forces to arrive that would give the Presidency, an office designed for a George Washington but always vulnerable to a Donald Trump, more and more power in order to push forward their agenda.

Part of what has been so insidious about the expansion of presidential power is that a substantial portion of the electorate seemingly only cares about the presidency, with little to no knowledge or appreciation of the role of Congress or the courts, depressing turnout for midterm elections and insulating Congress somewhat from the consequences of their actions. As Obama learned firsthand, the President gets a disproportionate amount of the credit or blame for things not entirely, or even at all, within their control; even when the problem is clearly Congressional gridlock, the President gets at least some of the blame for not “pushing through” it, even when the problem is clearly one side’s refusal to do a deal at all. Thus Republicans could spend the first two years of Obama’s presidency utterly refusing to do anything Obama supported and grinding the machinery of government to a standstill, and end up taking the House and enough state legislatures to effectively lock in control of the House for the next decade, then use that control to continue to stonewall for the remaining six years and ride a Republican president into control of both houses and more lesser offices.

In short, our Constitution, coupled with the expansion of presidential power, the move to democracy uber alles, and the corruption of our understanding of the system, far from curbing factionalism and tribalism, makes it nearly inevitable: only one party can control the Presidency, and either that party also controls both houses of Congress and can pursue their agenda as much as possible, or at least one house is controlled by the other party (or nearly enough so) and becomes unable to settle on anything as they use every trick in the book to keep the party in the White House from getting their way, resulting in the President using other (constitutional and extra-constitutional) powers to advance their agenda regardless. Couple that with the President’s nearly unchecked power to stock the Supreme Court and lesser judicial offices, and the power the Supremes in particular have to set the direction of the nation for decades to come, and every presidential election becomes an apocalyptic battle to set the direction of the nation for the next four years and beyond, with congressional races an afterthought and if anything even more prone to tribalism and partisanship. Only our “norms” have prevented the problem from getting this bad, but the Republican abandonment of those norms, coupled with increased popular participation at all levels of the system and the rise of cable news and the Internet allowing a greater ability to pick and choose one’s own reality to glorify one’s own tribe and bring down the other, have started us sliding inexorably into the abyss.

The short answer, then, to the problem of tribalism is that nothing less than a major overhaul of the Constitution, possibly to the point of calling a new convention, may bring us out of the abyss – not necessarily to reject the Founders’ values, but to reaffirm them and update the Constitution for our modern values and what we’ve learned about how it’s been used in practice in the intervening years, to reflect what we’ve come to expect out of the system and correct for how it’s actually come to work, to either correct for and try to limit the impact of tribalism or to accept it as an inevitable fact and harness it for good while limiting its negative impact. But not only is that a radical step, it’s not clear that we have the people that would be able to do the weightiness of the task justice, or any way to ensure that those are the people that would be involved as opposed to groups with axes to grind hoping to enshrine their values in the Constitution, nor can we be sure that the result would be entirely trusted by all sides of the debate. Indeed, the best solutions might be unacceptable without each side first recognizing the legitimacy, let alone potential rightness, of the other. If part of the problem is that each side doesn’t even agree with the other on what the basic problems with the country are, then part of the solution would seem to be to devolve more power to the states to solve what they perceive their problems to be. But neither side is willing to accept that; conservatives believe that blue states are offending God and need to have their support for abortion and gay marriage curbed at the federal level, while liberals believe that red states are impinging on the rights of women and gays and need the federal government to stop them from doing so. Indeed, it’s not even clear that state governments actually would solve their own problems as opposed to entrenching the prerogatives of the party in power and their benefactors, disenfranchising those that didn’t vote for them in the process, and maybe not even helping their own voters if they can find a way to misdirect blame for and the nature of the problems and the degree to which they even need to be solved.

If the task, then, is to find a way to work within the existing system to alleviate the problem of tribalism, what can be done? If having no factions, as the Founders hoped, is not an option, the next-best thing is to have a multitude of them. Certainly the way the two-party system encourages an us-vs-them mentality doesn’t help the problem of tribalism if you can define one side as always right and the other side as always wrong; with a multitude of parties, there’s always room to find common ground with at least one faction at least some of the time. This is another way in which the Constitution fails us as our current method of selecting Presidents and congressmen runs afoul of Duverger’s law making a two-party system inevitable, as much as supporters of third-party candidates often find it hard to grasp. Even within that system, though, much of the blame must fall on would-be third parties themselves, which by and large have fallen into the same trap as the rest of the electorate in focusing on the presidency uber alles, even as it’s become increasingly obvious that they can’t win or even pull enough of a showing to make any sort of progress even under the most ideal circumstances as the 2016 election was. A third party willing to make the Presidency of secondary or even no importance, instead focusing on races one of the major parties isn’t seriously contesting or at all, adopting a position moderate enough to actually capture a substantial portion of the electorate in those districts, taking advantage of gerrymandered districts by capturing the disenfranchised underclass along with enough of the majority to compete, stands to not only build up some real power and even correct some of the depredations of the current system by their very presence, but in the long term stands a chance to even capture or at least determine the fate of the Presidency.

In a way, I actually appreciate this question coming up, even though I’m addressing it a few days after the fact, because it gives me a chance to come back to these topics I started writing about in the period between the election and the inauguration without having to engage too much in all the depredations of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress as I’d felt I’d have to do. In the coming days and weeks I hope to write more of these posts going into more detail about the crisis facing the country, about the best way to smooth the course for third parties and jumpstarting the conversation about how to reform the Constitution by presenting my own ideas. Much of what I hope to write has been sitting unpublished in drafts for a year or percolating in my head for even longer, and some other ideas have been coming to the fore as a result of the other events of the past year. Maybe you don’t agree that steps as drastic as what I propose are necessary to address the problem of tribalism, but at least telling the truth about the nature of the problem is a necessary first step to actually doing something productive to address it, without falling into the cult of personality of a charismatic billionaire.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 10

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Selected game: New England @ Denver.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Selected game: Philadelphia @ Dallas.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Selected game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 8-1 v. 6-3 and a matchup between two teams in the thick of the playoff mix.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Panthers-Saints and Vikings-Falcons are the only games involving only teams above .500.
  • Analysis: At the same time it announced a crossflex for Week 12, the league also announced it was moving Panthers-Saints to become Fox’s lead national game this week, and listed a “final schedule” for both weeks, implying Eagles-Seahawks isn’t going to be flexed out no matter what. Of course it’s not like either game was going to overcome the tentative game bias anyway, not when the teams involved are this good (the best-case scenario for a flex is Panthers-Saints at 8-2 v. 7-3 with Eagles-Seahawks at 8-2 v. 6-4), but this allows me to make next week’s post right after the Monday night game ends.
  • Final prediction/actual selection: Philadelphia Eagles @ Seattle Seahawks (no change).

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-5 v. 7-2. The AFC is shoddy enough that the Ravens are only a game out of the wild card, but this game is looking pretty lopsided with the Steelers running away with the division, and the Ravens-Steelers rivalry can’t carry a game by itself anymore.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants (FOX).
  • Other possible games: As mentioned last week, the general manager of the Coliseum is now on record saying that “there are no restrictions on the venue playing host to a Sunday night game”. Still, if Vikings-Panthers is unprotected the league may want to make good neighbors with USC and the Coliseum’s neighbors and take Vikings-Panthers even with a slightly worse pair of records, especially with the Eagles on SNF the previous week and the Rams having an outside shot at being flexed in next week (if the Cowboys’ invulnerability to being flexed out somehow disappears). Seahawks-Jaguars remains a game involving a good pair of records but a team in the Jaguars the league and networks may instinctively blanch at the prospect of featuring.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 5-4 v. 4-5, but as usual it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks would be a good choice to flex in under more ideal circumstances. Any other games would involve going to teams below .500, and Dolphins-Bills and Cardinals-Trumps aren’t that appealing even then; certainly they wouldn’t overcome the tentative game bias even if the Cowboys weren’t involved.

Week 17 (December 31):

AFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (3-6)
SOUTH
46-3
56-3
6-3
WEST
36-3
65-4
4-5
EAST
27-2
4-5 3-7
5-4 4-5
NORTH
17-2
4-5
4-5 4-6
NFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (4-5)
WEST
47-2
57-3
6-3
NORTH
37-2
66-3
2 teams at 5-4
SOUTH
27-2
5-4
7-3 5-4
EAST
18-1
5-4
5-4 5-4
  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Panthers-Falcons, Jaguars-Titans, Packers-Lions, Bills-Dolphins, Cowboys-Eagles, Cardinals-Seahawks.

Last-Minute Remarks on SNF Week 12 Picks

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 5-4 v. 7-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of. For the Packers, beating the Bears on the road without Aaron Rodgers likely saves this game from being flexed out.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games mentioned on last week’s Watch and their records: Saints (7-2)-Rams (7-2) and Dolphins (4-4)-Patriots (7-2).
  • Impact of Monday Night Football: The Dolphins are trying to make Dolphins-Patriots a matchup of two teams with records above .500, but with identical records to the tentative.
  • Analysis: As mentioned earlier, any notion of flexing out this game depended on the Packers losing to the Bears and painting a picture of a Packers team in freefall.
  • Final prediction: Green Bay Packers @ Pittsburgh Steelers (no change).

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 9

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Selected game: New England @ Denver.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Selected game: Philadelphia @ Dallas.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-4 v. 6-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of. The Packers haven’t won since Aaron Rodgers went down, but those games were against good, playoff-worthy teams. The Lions are a little more concerning as they were 3-4 before the game, but the Packers would need to lose to the 3-5 Bears for this game to be in serious jeopardy.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. In lieu of that, the league’s only options involving only teams at or above .500 are Saints-Rams, which depends on a night game at the Coliseum the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend being an option, or Dolphins-Patriots, which may or may not have been protected. Panthers-Jets might sneak in if I was wrong about Fox’s protection (Bucs-Falcons was also somewhat viable at the time).
  • Analysis: For reasons I lay out below, Saints-Rams may well be a viable option. USC’s season would be over except for a possible Pac-12 Championship Game trip, which I believe would be at Levi’s Stadium. It would pit a big market, albeit one that’s lukewarm towards having their own NFL team (let alone two), against a name team in its own right, and two division leaders at what’s currently 6-2. It’s an iffier proposition than in two weeks, but if it looks like the Packers are going into freefall without Aaron Rodgers, it’d be hard for the league not to make the flex. Panthers-Jets and Dolphins-Pats would result in less unplanned travel from Washington, but would need the weaker AFC East teams to win (and the Dolphins have a Monday night tilt with the Panthers). If the Packers lose, expect me to have a convoluted prediction in my Last-Minute Remarks.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 8-1 v. 5-3, a skosh lopsided but the Seahawks are still very much in the playoff mix.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Panthers-Saints is the only game involving only teams above .500. Vikings-Falcons and Rams-Cardinals might also be viable, but it’d be very hard for them to overcome the tentative game bias under the circumstances.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-5 v. 6-2. The Ravens aren’t quite out of the playoff race, but the Steelers may be pulling away with the division, and this rivalry doesn’t have the fire it used to.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants (FOX).
  • Other possible games: I didn’t look at the comments on my Week 7 post until I started putting this one together, so I didn’t see that the general manager of the Coliseum is now on record saying that “there are no restrictions on the venue playing host to a Sunday night game”. The article is specifically in the context of Eagles-Rams, so I’m not sure how much that applies to Saints-Rams which would be more unbeatable, or even if the article being about Eagles-Rams itself implies that Saints-Rams can’t be flexed to primetime (regardless I have to assume the fact the article talks about it implies that Eagles-Rams wasn’t protected). As it stands Eagles-Rams may have to contend with a Vikings-Panthers game that’s nearly as strong record-wise, and if Saints-Rams gets flexed the NFL may want to stay away from flexing in a second Rams home game if it has another viable option. Of course all this assumes CBS didn’t protect Vikings-Panthers. Seahawks-Jaguars also remains an intriguing option, but I’m not even sure it would replace Eagles-Rams as Fox’s featured late game if Eagles-Rams were flexed in, the Jags have that little juice. But it’d still have more juice than the emerging dark horse Titans-Cardinals.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 5-3 v. 4-5, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (confirmed) (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks looks to be a very strong potential option. Dolphins-Bills and Cardinals-Trumps are dark horses.

Week 17 (December 31):

AFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (3-5)
SOUTH
45-3
55-3
5-3
WEST
36-3
65-3
4-5
EAST
26-2
4-4
5-3 4-5
NORTH
16-2
4-5
4-5 4-5
NFC Playoff Picture
DIVISION
LEADERS
WILD CARD WAITING IN
THE WINGS (4-4)
WEST
46-2
56-3
5-3
NORTH
36-2
65-3
2 teams at 4-4
SOUTH
26-2
5-3
6-3 3-5
EAST
18-1
5-3
  • Tentative game: None (NBC will show game with guaranteed playoff implications).
  • Possible games: Panthers-Falcons, Jaguars-Titans, Packers-Lions, Bills-Dolphins, Cowboys-Eagles, Cardinals-Seahawks.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 8

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Selected game: New England @ Denver.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 7-1 v. 4-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter, and these are the top two teams in the division.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Bengals-Broncos and Cardinals-Texans pit two 3-4 teams against each other, and Natives-Saints pits a 3-4 team against a 5-2 team. You’d have to take a below-.500 team if I’m right about the protections.
  • Analysis: The protected games, especially Rams-Vikings, are juicier, but it’s hard to imagine the league flexing out of a game featuring a Cowboys team above .500 (at that mark at worst) going up against what might be the best team in the league.
  • Final prediction: Philadelphia Eagles @ Dallas Cowboys (no change).

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-3 v. 6-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers. The Packers would need to lose to the Lions this week, and then the Bears in the last week before the decision needs to come down, to put this in serious jeopardy.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. In lieu of that, the league’s only options involving only teams at or above .500 are Saints-Rams, which depends on a night game at the Coliseum the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend being an option, or Dolphins-Patriots, which may or may not have been protected.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 7-1 v. 5-2, about as good as could be hoped for at the moment.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Panthers-Saints and Vikings-Falcons are the only games involving only teams above .500.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-4 v. 6-2. The Ravens have snapped their losing skid, but the Steelers might be starting to run away with the division, and this rivalry doesn’t have as much fire as it used to.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Did CBS leave Vikings-Panthers unprotected? If so, it’d be hard to beat. Is it possible for the Coliseum to host a Sunday night game in mid-December, after college football season is over but in the midst of USC finals, and would the NFL be okay with the Eagles having back-to-back Sunday night games? If so, that becomes an option, though if NBC were as desperate for it as one of my commenters thinks they’d have it scheduled to begin with (yes, no one thought the Rams would be this good, but still). But even without those two games, keep an eye on Seahawks-Jaguars. Would the NFL flex out of a game involving a rivalry that still has some resonance and a team with a fanbase far outside its home market for one involving a team most people are only aware of because they’re surprised they’re still in Jacksonville? Wait and see.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 4-3 v. 3-5, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If one of the teams in the tentative weren’t the Cowboys, Rams-Seahawks would be another reason not to flex in Eagles-Rams the previous week, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind. Texans-Jaguars, Bengals-Vikings, and Cardinals-Trumps are worth keeping an eye on as games involving teams at 3-4.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

Could ESPN Kill Thursday Night Football?

In 1987, ESPN achieved something of a holy grail for the cable industry, picking up a half-season package of Sunday night NFL games, paid for with the imposition of a surcharge on the fees cable operators paid them. In 1998, ESPN picked up the full season of Sunday night games, paid for by the negotiation of clauses with distributors ramping up the fees paid to ESPN every year. This was the start of the process that resulted in ESPN charging every cable subscriber over $7 a month, far more than any other national cable network, and a key component in ESPN’s ability to acquire top-of-the-line sports rights such as the biggest college football bowl games.

In 2005, Disney was outmaneuvered in its efforts to renew both ESPN’s Sunday night package and ABC’s Monday night package, as the NFL struck a deal with NBC to move the league’s marquee primetime package to Sunday night in order to institute flexible scheduling that would ensure good, competitive games late into the season. Disney was left paying as much as it had for both of its previous packages for a single package for airing on ESPN. Ever since, ESPN has paid nearly twice as much as the broadcast networks for a package not much better, if at all, than the marginally-attractive matchups it had been getting on Sunday night. ESPN executives have chafed at this, claiming that for the amount it pays it should be getting matchups at least on par with the broadcast networks; to be sure, part of the fee pays for ESPN’s ability to use highlights across its myriad of programs, but that’s only a fraction of it, maybe no more than a fifth. But when the time came to renew the deal, after nearly a decade of knowing what Monday Night Football had become with the move to cable, ESPN ponied up nearly two billion dollars a year, once again close to double what each of the broadcast networks were paying. ESPN’s package of NFL games may be weak, but they’re a big part of what makes ESPN so valuable to cable operators, what makes it such a must-have for sports fans, and without it ESPN not only becomes a lot less valuable, but that same package of games becomes a tool an FS1 or NBCSN can use to instantly establish near-parity with ESPN.

At the same time it was shaking up its existing primetime packages in 2005, the NFL carved out a package of late-season Thursday night games to air on its own network, hoping to turn NFL Network into a cash cow that could collect hefty subscriber fees directly for the league. The package grew until it eventually took up the whole season, both to coerce holdouts to carry NFL Network and to establish the worth of a package to sell to other parties. Initially, the league was thought to be selling part of the Thursday night package to another cable outlet like FS1, NBCSN, or TNT, any of which would be salivating over the prospect of using NFL games to increase their own worth to cable operators, but instead it ultimately sold the right to simulcast and produce half a season of games to broadcast networks while also selling the right to stream games to Twitter and later Amazon. Sure, Thursday night games meant teams would be playing on a short week, increasing the risk of injury and potentially resulting in sloppy games, and the league’s policy of making each team play on a short week exactly once during the season limited the package’s ability to show marquee matchups. But Thursday night was a place to collect another pound of flesh from TV partners and air the games that made NFL Network worth paying for for cable operators, as well as a place to experiment with new formats and partners. It wasn’t like there were any other places for them to do this. Sundays and Mondays were taken.

Things have changed quite rapidly over the past few years. Cord-cutting has taken off like a rocket as people increasingly turn to on-demand streaming services for their entertainment, undercutting the primacy of linear television. In the short term, this only increases the value of live sports as one of the few types of programming people will willingly watch live, without skipping commercials, and are willing to pay for cable packages to watch, but it also changes the very nature of linear television, as it’s becoming increasingly apparent that anything your network airs that isn’t live events is just filler between live events (as much as ESPN and Fox sometimes don’t seem to recognize this). In that context, highlight rights are considerably less valuable than they used to be.

ESPN and the NFL are also looking at a future where the cable bundle collapses and the NFL can’t simply sell whatever it offers for a billion dollars to whatever cable network pays for it, which is no doubt part of the reason why it sold TNF to broadcast networks and streaming services rather than cable networks. In this context, ESPN’s future is no longer in collecting as much money as it can off the back of every cable subscriber, but in converting itself into a service offering its wares direct to the consumer, and it has less to worry about from FS1 and NBCSN – who have benefitted ESPN more by keeping the cable bundle propped up than hurt it in any way, and which now become more untenable propositions both in general and for the league specifically – than it does from Amazon and its ability to synergize sports rights with its Prime service. A package of mediocre NFL games may be valuable to cable operators that can pass on the cost to all their subscribers and that NFL fans can watch at anytime after paying for the entire cable bundle, but a subscription service offered directly to consumers can best attract subscribers by covering certain sports comprehensively, or else a broad array of important sports events that can combine to make it a must-have service for sports fans, and that single mediocre NFL game each week isn’t going to fit the bill and certainly isn’t going to be worth two billion dollars.

In that context, it’s easy to see why, as James Andrew Miller, the man who literally wrote the book on ESPN, suggested in a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter, ESPN might be thinking about going without NFL rights when they next come up for renewal, for the first time since 1987. ESPN has been removing clauses conditioning its high subscription fees on its continued carriage of NFL games from its contracts with cable operators, which makes sense when you consider the gap in fees between ESPN and NFL Network (and the fact that TNT charges more than NFLN without football or really much of anything other than NBA basketball and select NCAA Tournament games), and freeing up two billion dollars a year of spending money allows them to pay for events that offer a larger tonnage of content and may be more likely to entice more people to sign up for an ESPN subscription service.

Meanwhile, faced with a second year of headlines of declining NFL ratings, networks have begun complaining to the NFL about oversaturation of games and games being taken out of the Sunday afternoon packages. They want to move all London games back to 1 PM ET and end the “breakfast football” games that kick off at 9:30 AM ET. And they want the league to cut the Thursday night package back to eight games. That latter point would be difficult for the league to acquiesce to; all eight games would need to be exclusive to NFL Network to meet the network’s own contractural agreements with TV partners, preventing them from selling the games to another partner or a streaming service and once again forcing them to produce the games themselves, and potentially irking cable operators seeing NFLN’s tonnage being reduced to what it used to be when it was having trouble finding partners. And there’s nowhere else for it to go; again, Sundays and Mondays are all tied up. Or are they?

If ESPN decides NFL games are no longer vital to their business, if they decide to go without the NFL in the next TV contract, because of market forces that mean the NFL can’t prop up the cable bundle or any particular cable network anymore, that opens up a package of games that the NFL likely can’t sell to ESPN or any outlet looking to imitate it, but can use for whatever other purpose the league wants. They can put half the games on NFL Network, at least as long as it remains a tenable proposition within the cable bundle, and sell the remaining half to broadcast networks as they do with TNF now, or to a streaming service like Amazon, potentially selling the full season once the cable bundle completely collapses. Without ESPN preventing the NFL from doing whatever they want with MNF, the league could turn Mondays into the experimental night Thursdays are now, potentially doing away with Thursday games entirely except for opening night, Thanksgiving, and the week after Thanksgiving when both teams can be taken from the Thanksgiving games and play on a full week’s rest, curbing concerns about the league wearing players into the ground to collect a pound of flesh it’s becoming increasingly difficult to collect.

The competitive concerns motivating ESPN to keep paying up for MNF haven’t completely eased; ESPN wouldn’t want to walk away from the NFL only to pave the path for Amazon to become a competitor for sports rights. But I continue to believe that no entity that doesn’t at least control a linear television platform can truly be a player for major sports rights, and while Amazon has a lot more going for it than most Internet outlets, it’s not immune to those fundamental forces. At the very least, if ESPN continues to control a linear outlet it has a major asset to offer to sports entities, and if Amazon were to find its way onto one, and spend as prodigiously on sports rights as media companies have over the past decade, it would risk losing some of the advantages Prime has over cable networks if not recreate the worst excesses of the cable bundle. ESPN can handle creating a new competitor in Amazon while freeing up funds to maintain its supremacy in other ways, the NFL gets to continue raking in money from whatever revenue streams are available even if they aren’t as big, and players and fans could potentially find themselves in a world without Thursday Night Football and all the excesses and problems it represents and perpetuates. Everyone wins.

Atlanta United Is Proof the Sounders’ Success Doesn’t Have to Be Unique

The Seattle Sounders’ eight-year run atop the MLS attendance charts has come to an end. After leading the league in attendance, usually by a significant margin, every year of its existence, earning accolades for their almost Premier League-like atmosphere at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders were beaten out this year by expansion team Atlanta United, which beat the Sounders by 5,000 fans per game, 48,200 to 43,666, and ended the season by setting the all-time single-game record for a game not associated with some other match. It’s a pair of tremendous feats only slightly undermined by the fact that the two teams play in the only two stadiums in MLS with capacities over 40,000 (and in fact the Sounders can only climb above that mark by taking the tarp off the upper deck), with New York City FC, playing at Yankee Stadium, and Toronto FC being the only other teams with capacities even over 30,000.

The success of Atlanta United, and the rave reviews they’ve earned for their own home atmosphere, should be a repudiation of MLS’ stadium-building strategy, one the Sounders’ success should have already discredited. For years MLS’ strategy for growing the league has been to build “soccer-specific stadiums” with capacities in the 18-30,000 range, for the sake of providing a more “intimate atmosphere” compared to the football stadiums that typified the first decade or so of the league’s existence. Seattle and Atlanta almost fell backwards into their huge crowds and rich atmospheres, with soccer being an add-on to their pushes to build new football stadiums, and were it not for the involvement of the owners of their markets’ respective NFL teams, they might have gotten soccer-specific stadiums like everyone else.

The theory behind “soccer-specific stadiums” seemed sound: football stadiums were often cavernous and underutilized for MLS matches, and sizing the stadiums for actual demand seemed like the natural thing to do. Until the season before the Sounders came along, no team had averaged 25,000 fans a game since the league’s inaugural season, so capacities in that range seemed reasonable. But it’s turned out that that may have had more to do with the missteps the pre-Sounders league took in its early days, when it tried to appeal to mainstream soccer fans by adopting timing and other rules more akin to those in other American sports, than with the actual ceiling of soccer in America. Of the bottom 11 teams in attendance, the entire back half of the league, 10 predate the Sounders, and 8 are among the ten teams that existed before the current expansion phase that began in 2005; the only “MLS originals” in the top half of league attendance are the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. NYCFC is the only post-Sounders franchise whose attendance is below 90% of capacity, out of nine teams to fall below that mark; by contrast, only three of the pre-2005 “MLS originals” have average attendance over 90% of capacity, two of which, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City, happen to have two of the three smallest stadiums in the league (and San Jose returned to the league in 2008 after the original team moved to Houston, while SKC is the result of what’s considered one of the most successful team rebrands in the league’s history). The uphill struggle facing the “originals” is such that the Columbus Crew, whose market has a soccer fanbase so strong that it is traditionally chosen to host the national team’s home matches against Mexico in World Cup qualifying, is seeing their owner threatening to move the team to Austin if they can’t get a new stadium – to replace the one for which the term “soccer-specific stadium” was coined in the first place.

We have empirical evidence that at least two franchises are playing in stadiums smaller than they could be. Despite multiple expansions, the Portland Timbers’ average attendance has been at or above Providence Park’s capacity every year of their existence (another expansion is set to add about 4,000 seats), but the real wasted opportunity has involved Orlando City SC. That team played two full seasons at Camping World Stadium, with average attendance in the second season being 31,324, but still went ahead with building Orlando City Stadium with a capacity of 25,500, which fans filled at a 98% clip this past season. The same goes for Minnesota United, who in this inaugural season averaged 20,538 fans at TCF Bank Stadium, but is building a stadium seating only 19,400 – after MLS rejected a competing proposal for a Minnesota franchise that would have had the team playing at the Vikings’ new US Bank Stadium. I could understand, to some extent, artificially limiting capacities to create a condition of scarcity and sell tickets for more, and the fact that Portland is the only team selling out their stadium quite so consistently could be used to make an argument that their stadium is the only one that really needs to get significantly bigger (along with San Jose and Kansas City). But unlike Seattle, Atlanta isn’t really the sort of market that comes to mind as a truly soccer-crazy market; after all, MLS was understandably hesitant about returning to the Southeast after the two Florida teams it had in its early days became the only two MLS teams ever to be contracted, and given its demographics Florida should in theory have more soccer fans than Atlanta, a city that, fair or not, has a reputation for being a frontrunning melting pot with little in the way of truly passionate fanbases for its teams. What other cities might have developed fanbases and gameday cultures on par with Seattle and Atlanta but never got the chance?

There’s no reason for any post-2009 franchise not to replicate the success seen by Seattle and now Atlanta, no reason why every one of them shouldn’t have the sort of gameday atmosphere seen in those two cities. It doesn’t take playing in an NFL stadium in every city; only building soccer-specific stadiums with larger capacities over 30,000. That may seem like a lofty goal for American soccer; the Premier League’s median stadium capacity is around 32,000. But to accept less is not merely to accept that MLS will never grow bigger than it is today; it is to accept that it would never grow bigger than it was before the recent boom in soccer’s popularity. Yet no stadium being built or proposed has a larger capacity than 25,000, including those proposed by the two most likely expansion franchises in Sacramento and Cincinnati (though Nashville seems to be moving down the fast track to a 27,500-seat stadium). Commissioner Don Garber has signaled his willingness to accept viable proposals for larger stadiums, but for now the thinking seems to be, go soccer-specific with capacities in the 20,000 range, or go bust. But if MLS is truly interested in growing the sport in America and helping it reach its full potential, not just keeping up the appearance of it, it needs to be willing to dream big – and that means letting its teams build the soccer stadiums of the future, not the past.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 7

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 5-2 v. 3-3. The Broncos aren’t playing as well as they might have looked to start the season, but this’ll still be difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX). (Texans-Rams likely does not need to be protected, to avoid trying to host a night game at the LA Coliseum, though this isn’t really known for certain; this also affects other Rams home games below.)
  • Other possible games: Saints-Bills is the best option in terms of records, while Vikings-Skraelings and Texans-Rams are a bit more lopsided.
  • Analysis: Right now Vikings-Skraelings and Texans-Rams have the exact same pair of records as the tentative, and even if the Broncos lost and each of the two teams in one of those games won (and the Rams are on bye this week), it’s doubtful it would overcome the tentative game bias. At 4-2 v. 4-2, Saints-Bills isn’t much of an improvement either, especially given how the Bills aren’t a name team. 6-2 v. 3-4 or 5-3 v. 3-4 is the sort of point when you start thinking about pulling a flex, but in a season where the league is as flat as it is it’s about as good as could be hoped for; I’m not sure 5-2 v. 5-2 with less name teams, or even Vikings-Skraelings at 6-2 v. 4-3, is going to get it done. (It also doesn’t help that the Broncos play on Monday night.) I could understand if the NFL pulls the flex, but I’d still probably be pretty surprised.
  • Final prediction: New England Patriots @ Denver Broncos (no change).

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 6-1 v. 3-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If the league needed an excuse to keep a lopsided Cowboys game, the fact that Natives-Saints is the only unprotected game involving two teams at or above .500 would do it.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-3 v. 5-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers. And the next two weeks, the Packers are on bye and hosting the Lions; they’d need to lose that game and then lose to the Bears in the last week before the decision needs to come down to put this in serious jeopardy.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. In lieu of that, the league’s only options involving only teams at or above .500 are Saints-Rams, which depends on a night game at the Coliseum the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend being an option, or Dolphins-Patriots, which may or may not have been protected.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 6-1 v. 4-2, about as good as could be hoped for at the moment.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Panthers-Saints is the best alternative at the moment, with Vikings-Falcons, Broncos-Dolphins, and Texans-Titans being dark horses.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-4 v. 5-2. Starting to become concerningly lopsided and the Steelers might be running away with the division, and this rivalry doesn’t have as much fire as it used to.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Did CBS leave Vikings-Panthers unprotected? If so, it’d be hard to beat. Is it possible for the Coliseum to host a Sunday night game in mid-December, after college football season is over but in the midst of USC finals, and would the NFL be okay with the Eagles having back-to-back Sunday night games? If so, that becomes an option, though if NBC were as desperate for it as one of my commenters thinks they’d have it scheduled to begin with (yes, no one thought the Rams would be this good, but still). But even without those two games, keep an eye on Seahawks-Jaguars. Would the NFL flex out of a game involving a rivalry that still has some resonance and a team with a fanbase far outside its home market for one involving a team most people are only aware of because they’re surprised they’re still in Jacksonville? Wait and see.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 3-3 v. 3-4, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: If one of the teams in the tentative weren’t the Cowboys, Rams-Seahawks would be another reason not to flex in Eagles-Rams the previous week, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind and Texans-Jaguars continuing to lurk as a dark horse.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.

Sunday Night Football Flex Scheduling Watch: Week 6

NBC’s Sunday Night Football package gives it flexible scheduling. For the last seven weeks of the season, the games are determined on 12-day notice, 6-day notice for Week 17.

The first year, no game was listed in the Sunday Night slot, only a notation that one game could move there. Now, NBC lists the game it “tentatively” schedules for each night. However, the NFL is in charge of moving games to prime time.

Here are the rules from the NFL web site (note that this was originally written with the 2007 season in mind and has been only iteratively and incompletely edited since then, hence why at one point it still says late games start at 4:15 ET instead of 4:25):

  • Begins Sunday of Week 5
  • In effect during Weeks 5-17
  • Up to 2 games may be flexed into Sunday Night between Weeks 5-10
  • Only Sunday afternoon games are subject to being moved into the Sunday night window.
  • The game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night during flex weeks will be listed at 8:15 p.m. ET.
  • The majority of games on Sundays will be listed at 1:00 p.m. ET during flex weeks except for games played in Pacific or Mountain Time zones which will be listed at 4:05 or 4:15 p.m. ET.
  • No impact on Thursday, Saturday or Monday night games.
  • The NFL will decide (after consultation with CBS, FOX, NBC) and announce as early as possible the game being played at 8:15 p.m. ET. The announcement will come no later than 12 days prior to the game. The NFL may also announce games moving to 4:05 p.m. ET and 4:25 p.m. ET.
  • Week 17 start time changes could be decided on 6 days notice to ensure a game with playoff implications.
  • The NBC Sunday night time slot in “flex” weeks will list the game that has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday night.
  • Fans and ticket holders must be aware that NFL games in flex weeks are subject to change 12 days in advance (6 days in Week 17) and should plan accordingly.
  • NFL schedules all games.
  • Teams will be informed as soon as they are no longer under consideration or eligible for a move to Sunday night.
  • Rules NOT listed on NFL web site but pertinent to flex schedule selection: CBS and Fox each protect games in five out of six weeks starting Week 11, and cannot protect any games Week 17. Games were protected after Week 4 in 2006 and 2011, because NBC hosted Christmas night games those years and all the other games were moved to Saturday (and so couldn’t be flexed), but are otherwise protected after Week 5; with NBC hosting a game the Saturday before Christmas Eve, I’m assuming protections were due in Week 4 again this year, and the above notwithstanding, Week 10 is part of the main flex period this year, as it was in 2006, 2011, and last year. As I understand it, during the Week 5-10 period the NFL and NBC declare their intention to flex out a game two weeks in advance, at which point CBS and Fox pick one game each to protect.
  • New this year, the flexed-out game always moves to the network from which the flexed-in game comes, regardless of which network it would air on normally. This should give the NFL some incentive to flex in games from the same network as the tentative, especially late in the year, to avoid having to deal with the rather restrictive crossflex rules more than necessary. It also affects CBS and Fox’s protection incentives; if the tentative is a game that would be valuable even if it needs to be flexed out (such as a Cowboys game), that affects both networks’ willingness to leave a week unprotected equally.
  • Three teams can appear a maximum of six games in primetime on NBC, ESPN or NFL Network (everyone else gets five) and no team may appear more than four times on NBC, although Week 17 is exempt from team appearance limits. For the entire first decade of SNF, no team started the season completely tapped out at any measure, with every team having no more than three NBC appearances or five overall appearances; however, this year the Chiefs and Steelers have been given six appearances across all primetime packages, and in the Chiefs’ case, only Week 5’s Texans game even fell within the early flex period (and both NFL Network appearances are genuinely in primetime) – especially headscratching since the Jaguars and Browns have been saved from having to play Thursday night at all (the new Week 17 rules may have something to do with this, with the Jags and Browns being saved by a quirk of the calendar). A list of all teams’ number of appearances is in my Week 4 post.

Here are the current tentatively-scheduled games and my predictions:

Week 9 (November 5):

  • Tentative game: Oakland @ Miami
  • Prospects: 2-4 v. 3-2. Okay, not great, but not necessarily something worth burning the first-ever early flex on either.
  • Possible alternatives: With the Chiefs still maxed out on primetime appearances, expect CBS to protect Broncos-Eagles over Chiefs-Cowboys, and with their next-best available game being 3-3 v. 3-3, don’t expect them to be much of a factor for losing a game. For Fox, Falcons-Panthers (3-2 v. 4-2) and Washington-Seahawks (3-2 v. 3-2) are their best games.
  • Analysis: Let’s say both teams in the tentative lose to go to 2-5 v. 3-3, while all four of the potential Fox games win to create two games at 4-2 v. 5-2 and 4-2 v. 4-2. Does the NFL pull the early flex on the game Fox doesn’t protect? It’s certainly tempting, assuming there aren’t further restrictions than are already known to keep the NFL from using early flexes on any but the most catastrophically bad tentatives.

Week 10 (November 12):

  • Tentative game: New England @ Denver
  • Prospects: 4-2 v. 3-2, attractive enough to be difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Steelers-Colts if anything (CBS) and probably Cowboys-Falcons (FOX). (Texans-Rams likely does not need to be protected, to avoid trying to host a night game at the LA Coliseum, though this isn’t really known for certain; this also affects other Rams home games below.)
  • Other possible games: Saints-Bills and Vikings-Skraelings are the best options, while Texans-Rams lurks a step or two behind.

Week 11 (November 19):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Dallas
  • Prospects: 5-1 v. 2-3, but when it’s the Cowboys the records don’t matter.
  • Likely protections: Ravens-Packers, with a possibility of Patriots-Raiders if that game in Mexico City could be flexed to primetime to begin with (CBS) and Rams-Vikings if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Natives-Saints is the only game between two teams above .500, with Cardinals-Texans pitting two teams at that mark.

Week 12 (November 26):

  • Tentative game: Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 4-2 v. 4-2 and two name teams, very difficult to let go of, even if the Packers go into the tank without Aaron Rodgers.
  • Likely protections: Broncos-Raiders or Dolphins-Patriots (CBS) and probably Panthers-Jets if anything (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Thanksgiving Weekend, paucity of good games. That said, if they were bigger-name teams and if it weren’t for the Chiefs already being maxed out on primetime appearances, I might have named Bills-Chiefs as a candidate for protection, and if it weren’t for the latter, the quality of the tentative, and how long it would make the trip from the Thanksgiving night game in Washington, it’d at least be under consideration for a move to Sunday night. Bucs-Falcons is also a game Fox might have protected if I was wrong about their protection, though it’s a bit iffier. Saints-Rams would be an option if a night game at the Coliseum was an option. That leaves only games involving teams at .500 (Panthers-Jets, Jaguars-Cardinals) unless CBS protected Broncos-Raiders to leave Dolphins-Patriots open.

Week 13 (December 3):

  • Tentative game: Philadelphia @ Seattle
  • Prospects: 5-1 v. 3-2, and if the Seahawks play more like the Seahawks of old from now on it’ll be very difficult to beat.
  • Likely protections: Probably Patriots-Bills (CBS) and honestly, probably nothing for Fox, as any of their games are possibly protectable.
  • Other possible games: Vikings-Falcons, Panthers-Saints, and Broncos-Dolphins are the best options, with Rams-Cardinals a viable dark horse. Chiefs-Jets would at least be a dark horse if the Chiefs weren’t still maxed out and it weren’t a skosh lopsided. Lions-Ravens and Texans-Titans pit two 3-3 teams.

Week 14 (December 10):

  • Tentative game: Baltimore @ Pittsburgh
  • Prospects: 3-3 v. 4-2 and for the AFC North lead if it were played today.
  • Likely protections: Raiders-Chiefs or Vikings-Panthers if anything (CBS) and Cowboys-Giants or (less likely) Eagles-Rams (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Vikings-Panthers is a pretty strong potential matchup if CBS left it unprotected; only Eagles-Rams could really come on par with it, but neither is likely to overcome the tentative game bias at this point even if Coliseum night games were an option. Seahawks-Jaguars, Jets-Broncos, and Titans-Cardinals are dark horses.

Week 15 (December 17):

  • Tentative game: Dallas @ Oakland
  • Prospects: 2-3 v. 2-4, but again it would take the apocalypse hitting to dislodge a Cowboys game from Sunday night.
  • Likely protections: Patriots-Steelers (CBS) and probably Packers-Panthers (FOX).
  • Other possible games: Rams-Seahawks is the strongest game on the slate, with Dolphins-Bills a bit behind and Jets-Saints and Cardinals-Trumps dark horses. Texans-Jaguars is a bit further back than that as a battle of 3-3 teams, but would be for the AFC South lead if played today.

Week 17 (December 31):

  • Playoff positioning watch begins Week 9.