By Barry Janoff
November 17, 2016: In 2006, the NFL began to air on NFL Network Thursday Night Football. Eight seasons later, the league struck a deal with CBS in 2014 for its own Thursday Night Football package, with games to be simulcast on NFL Network.
After two one-year deals with CBS, the Thursday Night Football cottage industry has continued to grow, first with all Thursday Night Football games live-steaming on Twitter and then with the addition of NBC to the mix, with the network adding five Thursday Night Football games to a line-up that also features Sunday Night Football.
The two-year deal for the 2016-17 seasons sees NBC and CBS getting five games each (all simulcast on NFL Network) and NFL Network getting an eight-game exclusive package. The new deal was valued at $450 million each for NBC and CBS.
"The NFL has the most powerful programming on television, and we are delighted to expand our prime time schedule to 24 regular season games," Steve Burke, CEO, NBC Universal, said when the package was unveiled by the NFL. "Thursday Night Football is an important addition to NBC's No. 1 ranked prime time lineup, and the perfect complement to our award winning Sunday Night Football broadcast.”
NFL ratings have been down this year across all media partners, with CBS averaging 14.7 million viewers for its five Thursday Night Football games this year (which ended Oct. 20).
The average audience for Thursday Night Football on CBS in 2015 was 17.6 million viewers, up from 16.1 million in 2014, according to the network.
NBC's Sunday Night Football game on Nov. 13 between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots averaged 22.2 million viewers.
NBC began to tout its Thursday Night Football package during its coverage of the Summer Games in Rio. This week, NBC upped its marketing with a multi-platform campaign, "Start Your Weekend Early," anchored by a series of spots featuring stars remaining in-character from such NBC shows as The Blacklist, Blindspot, Law & Order: SVU, Superstore, The Voice and the network’s trio Chicago Fire/Med/PD.
The premise: "The work week can be tough, so what would be better than to start your weekend early with NBC Thursday Night Football."
In October 2015, Jennifer Storms joined NBC as CMO, overseeing all marketing for NBC Sports Group assets, including NBC Sports, NBCSN, Golf Channel, the ten NBC Sports Regional Networks, NBC Sports Radio and NBC Sports Digital.
Her hire followed six years with PepsiCo (the last four as svp-global sports marketing, the first two as svp-sports marketing for Gatorade). Prior to that, she worked for 14 years at Turner Broadcast, most recently as svp-sports marketing and programming; and for two years with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Storms about NBC’s first Thursday Night Football game package, the 2016 Nascar championships, the Olympics and such other other prime NBC Sports alliances as the NHL, English Premier League, golf, horse racing and a plethora of events that ultimately culminate with world championships or at the Winter and Summer Games.
NYSportsJournalism.com: You started as CMO last Oct. 1, so it has been a little over a year. What were your goals and challenges coming in and how do you see them today?
Jennifer Storms: Coming in was pure excitement. I felt like a kid in a candy store. This environment, where you have the NFL, NHL, Premier League, Nascar, F1, Indy Car, Tour de France, horse racing and the Olympics. They tell you you should experience a full season of every sport to get it under your belt, along with doing the Rio Summer Olympics. So it felt as if I did an über year, not just a regular year. What I really wanted to do was to put the fans at the center of everything. And to make sure that as we look at all of these properties, we are looking at them very distinctly and uniquely. The great thing is that NBC Sports, combined with NBCUniversal, has a plethora of resources to really help us drive each of these sports in a unique manner to distinct audiences.
NYSJ: The NBC Thursday Night Football deal was unveiled this past February, so how involved were you in the process?
JS: I was fortunate because about the time that I walked into NBC was when the negotiations were still in progress. It was a great opportunity for me to start with something and go though the negotiations between the company and the league and to talk about what success would look like for marketing and the world of consumer engagement. And to see that come to life with how the deal was done. And to then be able to take it from there and plan it. The great thing about when I came in, the timing with Thursday Night Football, is that it’s been at the top of my list.
NYSJ: There are obvious similarities with NBC’s Sunday Night Football, but how are you trying to differentiate Thursday Night Football?
JS: The strong and solid similarities and where we are extraordinarily fortunate is that we take the iconic status of Sunday Night Football both behind and in front of the camera, use that with Thursday Night Football and know that the product will be spectacular. What’s cool from marketing and engaging consumers is that this is actually a new world for us. We are on a work day, which has opened up a lot of opportunities and a lot of new ways for us to talk to people and engage with people. We are offering people the proposition of starting their weekend early with Thursday Night Football. And we are engaging them in a relevant way during their work week to start their football weekend. As opposed to Sunday Night Football, which is the end of the football weekend. A culmination. So now we can have people begin and end their weekend with NFL football on NBC.
NYSJ: What if people start to take Friday off because of NBC?
JS: (Laughs.) We actually have launched on Change.Org with Whistle Sports a petition that people can sign to have Thursday night officially start the weekend, which if it gets enough support can be sent to the White House. (A spot with) Justin Tuck, Firefly of the Harlem Globetrotters, the Dude Perfect guys and others requests that people get Friday off during the weeks when NBC broadcasts Thursday Night Football. Many people already have the Friday after Thanksgiving Day off, and we are coming into the holiday season, so why not?!
NYSJ: This is the first season where CBS split Thursday Night Football with NBC (with the remainder exclusive to NFL Network), and they requested getting the first five games of the package. Are you happy getting the five-game schedule in November And December?
JS: We are thrilled with it. The games come during the holidays in November and December, which are times when people get together with family and friends to watch a lot of TV. And we have had time to build the promotion.We started to promote it during our coverage of the Rio Olympics, working with the NFL, that Thursday Night Football was coming to NBC in the fall. Over the past few weeks, we introduced the ‘Start Your Weekend Early’ theme. This week, we launched the campaign where we integrated Thursday Night Football into our shows. So it’s great timing. We now have about 13 games in 43 days. Great games, especially because we are getting closer to the post-season. We love it. Our advertisers love it.
NYSJ: The NFL TV numbers on national broadcasts have been down from previous seasons, so how much of a challenge is that for NBC, which has Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football?
JS: We have been following the numbers. We have strong games on Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football, which averaged 22.5 million viewers this past Sunday (Nov. 13, up 16% over the same week last year and up from an average of 19.5 million viewers on Sunday Night Football this season to date). The NFL remains an enormous, powerful property.
"We have 13 games in 43 days. Great games, especially because we are getting closer to the post-season. We love it. Our advertisers love it."
NYSJ: How did the campaign using the actors in your shows, and having them stay within their respective characters and within the themes of the shows, evolve?
JS: I have to tell you, this campaign has been some of the most fun I’ve had during my first year with NBC. We spent some time with the executives, film groups and actors from all of the shows and told them a little bit about the concept of making the part of the Thursday Night Football tent. And they took it and ran with it. They all worked hard to make (each spot) their own, have their own voice and to bring it to life consistent with their own brand. The partnerships were great and it’s been fun to watch. It further demonstrates how this company can uniquely come together. This is true, customized, cross-platform promotion.
NYSJ: You mentioned the Olympics, and you used to work for the U.S. Olympic Committee. What did you bring with you as far as experiences and knowledge from there to working on your first Olympics from the media side?
JS: I have had a unique experience. When I was with the USOC, which is the governing body side. So there are certain priorities and goals. I did two Olympics with them. This year, it was pretty spectacular to be on the media side with NBC. The constant drum beat of interaction, content and consumer engagement was amazing. To be part of it. To watch it. To see how many people were engaging literally 24 hours a day for 17 days. I don’t know of any other property that can bring people to life and keep them talking and keep them engaged for such a long time. And at such a high level.
NYSJ: You were with Turner Sports, PepsiCo’s Gatorade and now NBC. Is the use of social media in marketing and consumer/fan engagement among the biggest changes you’ve seen?
JS: Social media has become, and will continue to be, very impactful. When you look at the Rio Olympics, for example, social media was a huge winner. All of the numbers came in extraordinarily high. A lot of engagement with regard to people streaming the property. Consumers continue to access (sports) at higher and higher levels. Engaging more and in different ways on different platforms. We expect to see that with Thursday Night Football, where we are engaging people with a full social media and marketing plan across all of NBC Sports’ social media accounts. And we plan to do that with our coverage of the Nascar Xfinity and Sprint Cup championship races, as well.
NYSJ: Nascar might get overlooked by some viewers because of the extensive support being given to Thursday Night Football and then Sunday Night Football, so how do you keep the race events top of mind as well?
JS: We are coming off a year in which Jeff Gordon was retiring, and then he was racing in the championship (to fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., dealing with a concussion, for Hendrick Motorsports). So that was a great storyline. But we have four really great drivers going in (Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch). We took them through the 'car wash' this week with great promotion and engagement. Nascar has had a great season. It drives very large viewership and engagement in the sports landscape.
NYSJ: Is part of the challenge, and part of the fun, juggling all of the properties and making sure that viewers are aware of the programming, people are engaged and advertisers are happy?
JS: We have so many great properties and great people working on the creative side that, while there are challenges, it is amazing to deal with. This weekend with Thursday Night Football. Nascar. Sunday Night Football. Golf. The Premier League. Followed by Wednesday Night NHL Rivalry, the NFL on Thanksgiving and an NHL game on Friday after Thanksgiving (Philadelphia Flyers hosting the New York Rangers). And don’t forget the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which we also air (on Thanksgiving Day following the Macy’s Day Parade). We have an excellent cadence going from now until the end of the year. We are looking forward to finishing 2016 in a strong way.
NYSJ: How would you sum up your first year with NBC Sports?
JS: Hectic but great. I am extraordinarily fortunate that I walked into a situation with a superstar team. They have been doing all of the good work. And I’ve been able to listen and learn. I’m enjoying every minute.
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