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Fox lands deal for ‘Thursday Night Football’ broadcasts

“Thursday Night Football” has a new home: Fox.

The league announced today that it had reached a five-year agreement with Fox to broadcast 11 games a season on Thursdays. As in years past, the NFL Network will simulcast those games and also exclusively broadcast an additional seven games in that time slot. A digital partner for the games — it was Amazon last season — has yet to be announced.

“You either have the rights to the most-watched content, or you don’t,” Peter Rice, president of 21st Century Fox, said on a conference call announcing the agreement. “We believe in buying the very best rights, and the best rights are NFL.”

Thursday night games have been something of a neglected afterthought for the league. CBS has broadcast “Thursday Night Football” for the past four seasons, splitting the last two with NBC. Those two networks paid a combined $450 million annually for five games each, with NBC paying additionally for a sixth game. Fox is paying more than $660 million annually for the new package, according to ESPN. News of the deal was first reported by Sports Business Journal.

According to multiple reports, both CBS and NBC bid less than they had paid previously, underscoring the difficulty in finding profit by showing football on Thursday nights.

“Thursday Night Football” was introduced in 2006. Its ratings slid 12 percent last season. Players have complained vociferously about playing two games in five days, and the NFL’s own data shows an increase in injuries on Thursday night.

“We explored a responsible bid for ‘Thursday Night Football,’ but in the end are very pleased to return to entertainment programming on television’s biggest night,” CBS said in a statement.

“We made a competitive bid based on our two years of carrying ‘TNF,’” NBC said.

Fox is in a substantially different position from NBC and CBS, perhaps underscoring why it was willing to bid so much more on the package.

Disney recently agreed to pay $52.4 billion to acquire most of 21st Century Fox’s movie and television assets. The deal still requires government approval, but if it goes through, Fox broadcast networks, Fox News, and Fox Sports 1 will be the backbone of a new company focused heavily on live sports and news.

Fox sees the agreement as a harkening back to 1993, when the network made a stunning bid to win the rights to broadcast NFL games, in what some critics thought was an overpay.

“Twenty-five years ago, we made our first historic deal to broadcast NFC games, and that helped transform our then fledgling network into the powerhouse it is today,” Rice said.

The NFL has used the Thursday night package as a trial balloon, keeping contract lengths short and experimenting with digital partnerships. The five-year agreement with Fox will make it the home for football on Thursday nights for the medium term, and expires after the 2022 season, the same time the NFL’s Sunday and Monday broadcast agreements expire.

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