Mike North has immersed himself in the world of NFL schedules for nearly a quarter-century now. This is North’s 25th year at the NFL and 22nd as part of the NFL’s broadcast department. His official job title is VP of broadcast planning, and he talks about scheduling with the passion of a museum curator talking about an exhibit.
This month marks a big milestone in North’s world: It’s the first-ever “Monday Night Football” game to be flexed, a byproduct of the media rights agreements between the league and its partners. The Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks will now meet on “Monday Night Football” on Dec. 18 at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN/ABC. In a corresponding move, the matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots was moved from its original Monday night spot to Fox at 1 p.m. ET on Dec. 17. As per the flexible schedule moves: The NFL can flex an unlimited number of times for “Monday Night Football” between Weeks 12 and 17, and must give 12 days notice.
Monday Night Football has its first-ever flex 📝
Eagles-Seahawks will be replacing Chiefs-Patriots for Week 15 on Dec. 18. pic.twitter.com/DftrGpTVU2
— ESPN (@espn) November 30, 2023
So how did this come about? To start, Week 15 already had several flexible-scheduling elements because of the NFL’s TBD pool. But let’s give the floor to North for a full explanation given, to paraphrase Hamilton, he was in the room where it happened.
“We look at the prime-time windows, we look at Sunday night, we look at Monday night and we look at Thursday night,” North said. “Are these games the right games for national windows? What’s the right thing to do for the fans? What’s the right thing to do for the teams? What we ended up with in this set of circumstances was an opportunity where all the networks could get a little victory. That’s rare.
“All of scheduling really is a zero-sum game. Anything that we’re doing to make NBC better, we’re taking a game from CBS. Anything we’re doing Monday night, we’re taking a game from Fox. It’s hard to find a situation where everybody can win in a flexible-scheduling decision. But what we found in Week 15 was a very unique set of circumstances. … The Patriots are having a more disappointing season certainly than they’d hoped and there was some understandable concern about the potential competitiveness of a Chiefs-Patriots game. Then we had a unique situation where we had scheduled Dallas–Buffalo and Philly-Seattle both for the 4:25 (ET) window on Fox. You can make a case that both of those games were worthy of their own window. We felt like this was an opportunity to unlock an under-distributed game in Philly-Seattle. When you factor in the NFL TBD pool, what this allowed us to do was put games with playoff implications in all three NFL Network Saturday windows. Now Dallas-Buffalo is going everywhere on Fox so everybody can see it. The Sunday night game is Baltimore–Jacksonville, and that could be for the No. 1 seed in the AFC by the time we get there. Then Monday you get a Philly-Seattle game, two teams squarely in the mix for the NFC (playoff) picture.
“One of the things that we obviously have to be sensitive about is the competitive impact of making a scheduling change like this and asking Philadelphia to take a three time zone trip and turn it into a Monday night game and shorten the following week,” North continued. “But we got a little lucky here because Philadelphia was already playing the following Monday. They’re part of the Christmas triple-header. So they’d be going Monday to Monday, which eases some of the concern. … So you take all of those factors, and while not without some challenges and inconveniences obviously to our fans and ticket holders, this felt like the right thing to do for the National Football League.”
As far as the process of working with the broadcasters, keep in mind that every NFL-airing partner talks to the NFL broadcasting department regularly. No one is shy about giving opinions. (ESPN executives were supportive of next week’s flex switch.) North said the league wants to know the impact on the production costs for the networks on moving games. They also want to know how the network sees the change regarding viewership projections. (They have even more in-depth conversations with each club.) North said that conversations with the networks often start three or four weeks out from any potential flex, and no network or team is going to be blindsided by flexible-schedule moves (the fans are, of course). As a fan, it’s always wise to look at the current standings and then scout out the schedule over the next couple of weeks during the weeks when flexible scheduling exists.
“Everybody gets to weigh in and everybody gets to put their list of considerations together for our master list,” North said. “Then the scheduling team … the whole team gives input, and then we make a recommendation to the commissioner (Roger Goodell). At the end of the day, he makes the final decision.”
Viewership is clearly the primary goal for these moves, even if no one says it explicitly. The calculation is whether all the logistical changes, challenges and competitive aspects are worth it. One thing to keep in mind as far as the media end: The NFL will look to help one of its media partners if season-long viewership is lower versus the previous season. Freeing up Dallas-Buffalo, for instance, will give Fox a big pop in a year that they could use some viewership down the stretch. Having Kansas City in the 1 p.m. ET window might help Fox too as a lead-in to Dallas-Buffalo.
North knows the best-laid plans may not materialize. The Patriots could upset the Chiefs, or the Eagles-Seahawks game could be over at halftime.
“Sometimes it’s a question of rewarding a team that has played their way into the national television conversation, even though maybe that’s not a brand that has necessarily broken through yet and is going to deliver more viewers,” North said. “Having a tool in our toolbox to be able to make a change, it’s never reckless, it’s never haphazard, it’s not that common. It’s really only when we feel like there’s a benefit not just to the one prime-time partner, but all the partners can benefit, all the fans can benefit, and certainly those who are watching on television. It’s hard enough to pick the best games two weeks out. let alone five months out. So if there a couple levers we can pull to let our fans see the games that have the most impact on the playoff races in December, that’s the goal.”
NFL Week 14 playoff scenarios: Cowboys, Eagles, 49ers can clinch berth
Viewership notes: Fox’s broadcast last Sunday of the San Francisco 49ers vs. Philadelphia averaged 27.7 million viewers. That’s Fox’s most-watched Sunday game of the season. The Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers game on “Sunday Night Football” drew 25.4 million viewers, the program’s best on-record viewership for a Week 13 game.
If you were watching last week’s “Sunday Night Football” game between the Chiefs and Packers, you saw NBC’s production pick up a fantastic replay of Kansas City running back Isiah Pacheco throwing a punch in the direction of Packers cornerback Keisean Nixon.
The replay came from the pylon cam and the quick work of NBC’s SNF production truck. How did “Sunday Night Football” find the replay so quickly?
“The replay operator that deserves credit is Curtis Menzel,” said SNF lead producer Rob Hyland. “Curtis has two assignments each weekend: A super slow motion cart camera replay source as well as our pylon cameras. It’s rare that an obscure, off-the-ball element is captured best from this perspective, but Curtis did a great job finding the incident and selling it in a timely manner. We expect to have a definitive look on every play on ‘Sunday Night Football.’ Although this replay came off of a less trafficked or expected source, I was glad that we had a definitive look.”
(Photo of the Eagles’ DeVonta Smith: Perry Knotts / Getty Images)