NFL Thursday night games happen because of dollars, not sense

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL's Thursday Night Football schedule hasn't been a huge hit with players or fans, yet the league is reportedly considering adding more games to the schedule.

The NFL is considering expanding its package of Thursday night games and could even have Thursday night doubleheaders in the future, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

The NFL launched Thursday Night Football on the NFL Network in 2006 and have expanded the package since, including 13 games this season. With three more games on Thanksgiving, there will be 16 games played on Thursdays this season. The NFL could expanding the package even further with games possibly airing on other networks.

While the expanded package is yet another step in the NFL's attempt to grow its brand, it comes at a time when many fans and players have voiced displeasure with Thursday night games. Many players do not like the quick turnaround and the result is often sloppy play on the field which doesn't make for very enjoyable games for the fans.

Thursday night games still draw well, however, and put the NFL in a spotlight. Those could be key factors if the league does indeed push for more Thursday games in the future. There will be several factors in the decision, which will have to be approved by the NFL Players Association. Here are a few possible issues which could factor in.

Players and coaches opposed

It's not hard to find players and coaches who are publicly against playing games on Thursday nights. Instead, the challenge is to find players who support the games. Here's a sampling of what some players and coaches have said about Thursday Night Football.

"If they are really concerned about the violence and injuries and players getting hurt, answer this question for me, and I'm going to leave y'all with this: Why is there Thursday night football?" Ed Reed said last year, via USA Today. "We played three games in (12) days. Why is there Thursday night football?"

"It's who is less miserable than the other?" former Steelers offensive linemen Max Starks said, via the Associated Press.

"Go get in a car accident and then try to play two days later," Former Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said, via the AP. "That's how it feels."

"The recovery time from Sunday to Thursday is ridiculous, especially after playing a very physical game, and then to have to travel," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said, via the News-Sentinel. "When you add the travel in, you may get some swelling out of your body, but on that airplane, you're going to swell right back up.

(Playing Thursday) is great for television. It's great for the NFL Network, obviously. But I think it's very, very taxing on these athletes, especially when we talk so much about player safety. But it is what it is and we all have to deal with it."

"But there are some things that just don't make sense to me," Anquan Boldin said, via NESN. "I mean if you're so concerned about player safety then why do you have every team in the league playing on Thursday night when they just competed on a Sunday, knowing how difficult it is for guys to get back to being healthy after playing on Sunday? Guys really don't feel like they're back till probably Thursday or Friday to prepare for that next week."

"Physically just being able to go out there full speed on Thursday is a challenge," Jay Cutler said, via National Football Post. "It's hard to win in this league especially on a Thursday."

Player safety

The games tend to be sloppy, likely due to player fatigue. Fatigue could also lead to additional injuries according to Dr. Gerard Varlotta.

"That is a problem with Thursday games: The short turnaround and the number of practices condensed into a shorter time can lead to more fatigue and more injuries," Varlotta said, via the AP.

The NFL disputes that claim and said the data does not suggest more injuries occur during Thursday games.

"We have looked at the data from past seasons' injury data and there was nothing noted that suggested an increased rate of injuries," The NFL said in a statement, via USA Today. "There is no data to this point showing an increased rate of injury in Thursday games."

Last season, Andrew Mooney of Boston.com dove into play-by-play data to see if more injuries were reported in games on short rest and there was a slight increase, however, not a significant one:

My results indicated nothing exceptional about games played with less than a week of rest. Injuries occurred at almost exactly the same rate in Thursday night games and post-Monday night games (31 injuries in 30 team-games, for a rate of 1.03 per team-game) as they did on regular Sunday games (204 in 202 team-games, 1.01 per team-game).

When I limited the sample to just Thursday games, which have two fewer days of rest than post-Monday night games, the injury rate did increase slightly to 20 in 16 team-games. However, a binomial test revealed that this rate is still not significantly different from the proportion of injuries that occur on Sundays. It appears that Thursday night games pose no added danger to players after all.

Scheduling issues

The issue with Thursday night games extends beyond just the one game. It forces players to play multiple games within a short period of time. For example, Baltimore played four games in 17 days last season thanks to one game on Monday night and another on Thursday night.

Adding more games could also cause a competitive issue. All 32 teams will play on Thursday once this season, but if the schedule is increased next year, some teams will be forced to play multiple Thursday games while others would only have to do so once. With players and coaches complaining about the lack of recovery and prep time for games, it wouldn't be fair to force some teams into those circumstances more than others. The NFL could expand the Thursday schedule to 32 games, but that would require significant maneuvering and likely 14 double headers.

Television ratings

So why would the NFL consider adding more games to the Thursday schedule if players, coaches and fans are against them? Despite the complaints, Thursday Night Football has still been a success in the ratings. This season's slate of games have averaged 8.1 million viewers, up 27 percent from last year, according to TV by the Numbers.

Even though it falls short of the ratings of Monday Night Football -- which routinely draws more than 10 million viewers and drew a record 16.5 million viewers earlier this season -- Thursday Night Football is still the most-watched program of the night.

Additional games may also allow the NFL to expand its broadcast. According to the Wall Street Journal report, the NFL is considering airing the additional games on networks other than the NFL Network. That could include online providers like Netflix or Google. The NFL has added additional online content in recent seasons, but selling live game rights to a subscription service like Netflix could be yet another revenue source for the league.

Why not Friday or Saturday?

With player fatigue and other issues impacting games on a short week, many have asked why the NFL doesn't instead opt to play games on Friday or Saturday nights. The extra day or two would give players more rest instead of having Thursday double headers.

The answer dates back to the 1960s when Congress granted the NFL an antitrust waiver, according to Gregg Easterbrook of The Atlantic. The waiver allowed the NFL and AFL to merge, for the league to conduct a draft and auction television rights. This and other legislation passed in the 1960s allowed the NFL to act as a monopoly when it came to negotiating television rights. The result is billions of dollars of television revenue for the league. The NFL also operates as a non-profit organization and has tax-exempt status.

The only stipulation to the deal, according to Easterbrook, was the NFL agreed to not schedule games on Friday nights or Saturdays so they would not conflict with high school and college football. Considering how many millions of dollars the NFL's antitrust status keeps in the league's pocket, the NFL is unlikely to ever consider Friday night or Saturday games during the regular season.

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