Statistical and Financial Analysis of Primetime Football

Statistical Analysis of Primetime Football


26.9 million people tuned in Thursday night to NBC to watch the Seahawks and Packers kick off the NFL season. After CBS and Fox’s slate of games Sunday, week one concludes tonight with a Monday night doubleheader on ESPN. And this Thursday CBS will debut its coverage of Thursday Night Football, a property the network has promoted heavily in the lead up to the fall TV season. With league popularity at an all time high, NFL broadcasts are some of the highest rated shows on both cable and network TV.

Sunday_night_footballPrior to the schedule’s release in April, networks with primetime game contracts (NBC on Sunday nights, ESPN on Mondays and, as of this season, CBS on Thursday nights) negotiate for the rights to show the season’s most anticipated games. These networks have specific clauses in place regarding the selection of games in their contracts with the league. Peter King of the MMQB provided behind the scenes details on how the schedule gods arrive at the final draft, but much of the process remains a mystery.

The following will analyze the quality of primetime games on each network using two primary factors: win totals from the previous season (including playoffs) and the relative popularity of teams (measured by frequency of Google searches).  The focus will center around primetime games during the first eight weeks of the season, since it’s difficult to project how attractive a late-season matchup will be prior to the start of the year. To provide context, I will then compare the quality of games to how much each network pays the NFL for broadcast rights.

Below is a list of all the primetime games during the first eight weeks, grouped by network. Note that in Week One NBC broadcasts a game on Thursday (the NFL Kickoff Special) and Sunday, and ESPN broadcasts two Monday night games. CBS’s coverage of Thursday Night Football begins in Week Two.

Next to each team is its win total from the previous season. One additional win is added for making the playoffs and for each playoff win (excluding wins in the wildcard round, in order to prevent bias against teams that earned a first round bye). The next number attempts to quantify the team’s popularity. A value of one represents league average popularity. A team with a rating of 1.8 is searched for 1.8 times more frequently than average.

Example: The Packers won 8.5 games during the regular season (including one tie) and made the playoffs but lost in the first around. Their popularity rating is 1.86. Green Bay will be displayed as: Packers (9.5, 1.86).

NBC (Sunday Night and NFL Kickoff game)

Week 1 – Packers (9.5, 1.86) vs. Seahawks (17, 0.99) and Colts (13, 0.9) vs. Broncos (16, 1.22)

Week 2 – Bears (8, 1.59) vs. 49ers (14, 1.21)

Week 3 – Steelers (8, 1.73) at Panthers (13, 0.76)

Week 4 – Saints (12, 0.95) at Cowboys (8, 2.39)

Week 5 – Bengals (11, 0.55) at Patriots (14, 1.75)

Week 6 – Giants (7, 1.37) at Eagles (11, 1.77)

Week 7 – 49ers (14, 1.21) at Broncos (16, 1.22)

Week 8 – Packers (9.5, 1.86) at Saints (12, 0.95)

ESPN (Monday Night)

Week 1 – Giants (7, 1.37) at Lions (7. 0.54) and Chargers (10, 0.81) at Cardinals (10, 0.48)

Week 2 – Eagles (11, 1.77) at Colts (13, 0.9)

Week 3 – Bears (8, 1.59) at Jets (8, 1.17)

Week 4 – Chiefs (12, 0.66) at Patriots (14, 1.75)

Week 5 – Seahawks (17, 0.99) at Washington DCs (3, 1.08)

Week 6 – 49ers (14, 1.21) at Rams (7, 0.61)

Week 7 – Texans (2, 0.49) at Steelers (8, 1.73)

Week 8 – Washington DCs (3, 1.08) at Cowboys (8, 2.39)

CBS (Thursday Night)

Week 2 – Steelers (8, 1.73) at Ravens (8, 0.89)

Week 3 – Buccaneers (4, 0.49) at Falcons (4, 0.64)

Week 4 – Giants (7, 1.37) at Washington DCs (3, 1.08)

Week 5 – Vikings (5.5, 1.18) at Packers (9.5, 1.86)

Week 6 – Colts (13, 0.9) at Texans (2, 0.49)

Week 7 – Jets (8, 1.17) at Patriots (14, 1.75)

Week 8 – Chargers (10, 0.81) at Broncos (16, 1.22)

Comparison among networks

The average number of wins per game between the two teams in NBCs first nine games is 23.67. For ESPN’s Monday Night Football schedule the average during that same time is 18. From Week 2 to Week 8, the average for CBS on Thursday nights is 16. The difference between mean wins for NBC’s games compared to both CBS and ESPN is statistically significant at the 95% confidence level.^

Monday-Night-FootballThe average popularity of the teams playing on NBC during this time is 1.35, or 35 percent more popular than the average team as measured by Google search frequency. For teams playing on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, the average popularity rating is 1.15, and on CBS the average is 1.11. At the 95% confidence level, this is not statistically significant.^

Based on these measures, NBC has the best slate of games, followed by ESPN, and then CBS. Despite this disparity, ESPN pays considerably more money – $1.9 billion per year compared to NBC’s $950 million in 2014 – for the rights to broadcast games. CBS is paying $250 million to broadcast seven Thursday night games and one late season Saturday game.

Primetime Lineup and media rights comparison

NBC has the most desirable lineup of games during the first eight weeks of the 2014 season, even though the network pays considerably less than ESPN for its rights fee. NBC’s contract also includes the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl every three years and two playoff games each season.

Another advantage NBC has over ESPN is that later in the season the network can ‘flex’ games not originally scheduled for primetime into the Sunday night time slot. The network also has rights to extended highlights of games beginning at 7 p.m. eastern on Sundays, while ESPN cannot air these until the conclusion of the Sunday night game (although ESPN does have rights to show highlight and other NFL-related shows that all garner relatively high ratings throughout the week). NBC also airs a game on Thanksgiving night, which arguably features this year’s best rivalry between the Seahawks and 49ers for a total of 19 games.  ESPN will air a total of 17 games.

The disparity between the quality of games on Sunday and Monday nights is clearly evident in Week One, when both networks air two primetime games. NBC’s games include the defending Super Bowl champions (Seahawks) hosting the league’s most storied franchise (Packers), and the league’s biggest star (Peyton Manning) against his former team (Indianapolis). ESPN’s Monday night doubleheader tonight opens with two teams that missed out on the postseason last year (Giants at Lions) and the two relatively unpopular teams that lack star power (Chargers at Cardinals).

Although ESPN is stuck with a less desirable lineup at a higher cost, its $1.9 billion annual contract also pays for dozens of hoursof NFL programming and highlightsthat are used each week to attract better ratings throughout the season. Additionally, the league commands a premium from ESPN since games on cable are available to about 15 million fewer homes than it would be on network TV. ESPN can aslo afford the higher and still be extremely profitable since it charges cable subscribers more than $5 per month, which generated $6.54 billion in 2013. This can make the $1.9 fee for Monday Night Football more palatable, since broadcast networks like NBC and CBS only earn money from advertisements.

In 2013 Monday Night Football averaged 13.68 million viewers per game, while NBC’s Sunday Night football averaged 21.7 million viewers. While a number of factors could contribute to this discrepancy, NBC’s superior schedule is likely a factor. In 2013 the NFL Network

Next Level Statistical Comparison of Schedules

Still, one would think a rights fee double NBC’s for similar programming (primetime football) would garner ESPN a more favorable schedule. For another perspective on early season lineups recently announced for NBC and ESPN, I combined the average wins and popularity of teams playing these games into one number. In order to weight these factors equally, each team’s rating in both categories was converted into z-scores to compare each team’s wins and popularity to the league average. A z-score of zero is average, while positive and negative z-scores represent values above and below average, respectively.

Thursday_Night_Football_logoFor each game, a value was assigned based on the z-score of each team’s 2013 wins and overall popularity for a total of four numbers. For the first Sunday night game – Indianapolis at Denver – the Colts have a z-score for wins of 1.13, considerably above average. Their popularity z-score is -0.19, slightly below league average. Denver’s z-score for wins is 1.88 and 0.43 for popularity. Therefore the total value assigned to this game is 3.25. The first Monday night game between the Giants and Lions actually has a negative value. The only positive z-score for this game is popularity of the Giants.

Using these calculations, NBC’s games during the first eight weeks of 2014 have an average value of 3.006. For ESPN’s Monday Night Football schedule during this same time, the average is just 0.754. The CBS Thursday night schedule has an average score of 0.248. Each of these differences in mean 4-way z-scores is significant at the 99% confidence level.^

These calculations do not perfectly value the quality of a game or precisely predict ratings. For example, while the Washington DCs won just three games last season and rank just barely above league average in popularity, (1.08) the team has a young superstar at quarterback and plays in a big media market. Additionally, every game in CBS’s package is between two division rivals, so the appeal of the game might be greater than individual numbers would indicate. Still, these numbers provide a decent sense of the attractiveness of each network’s overall schedule.

Now, let’s compare these numbers to how much each of these networks pays per game. It’s not a perfect apples to apples comparison, for reasons previously discussed concerning highlight shows and playoff games. But if we simply look at regular season games, ESPN pays about $112 million ($1.9 billion / 17 regular season games) per Monday night game. NBC pays about $50 million ($950 million / 19 regular season games) per regular season game and CBS pays about $31 million per game.

Network and night 2013 wins per game CombinedPopularity score per game Average added 4-part z-score per game Annual Rights Fee Rights Fee per game*
NBC/Sunday 23.67 1.35 3.006 $950M $50M
ESPN/Monday 18 1.15 0.754 $1.9B $112M
CBS/Thursday 16 1.1 0.248 $250M $31M


*Does not factor in playoff games or non-game NFL programming (highlight and studio shows) that are part of rights fee contracts.

NBC clearly has a favorable primetime schedule compared to ESPN and CBS. Other subjective factors like rivalry and star-appeal may not be captured in these statistics, and different networks have different goals for their partnerships with the NFL. But schedule quality is certainly a factor to consider when these current contracts come up for renegotiation at the end of the decade.


^This was determined by calculating an F-test for difference between means, then intervals of means comparisons were done for each pair of networks.








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