Expect NFL to flex its scheduling muscles beginning next season

The league will have the option to flex games into ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” and the road team’s conference affiliation no longer will determine whether a game airs on CBS or Fox.

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The NFL flexed a game into NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” in back-to-back weeks.

Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

For the NFL, it’s the most flexible time of the year.

On Monday, the league announced it was flexing a game into NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” for the second consecutive week and the third time this season. It also revealed the three games that will move from Sunday to Saturday in Week 15 and air on NFL Network.

Expect more flexing as playoff races come into focus, culminating with the biggest flex of them all for the “SNF” season finale, which takes the most important game on the Week 18 slate.

But there’s more at work here than just the 2022 schedule. The NFL has done a good job conditioning fans on the process of flexible scheduling, and it will take that work to another level next season, when the league will have the option to flex games into ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

In fact, as the NFL tries to optimize its schedule by putting the best games in the best windows, it figures to flex its muscles more than ever next season with the most flexible scheduling available since the mechanism’s first use in 2006.

It will start with the initial schedule. Though CBS will still own the AFC package and Fox the NFC package, it won’t matter which team is on the road. Most games with AFC road teams have aired on CBS, and most with NFC road teams on Fox. Though there’s a minimum number of games in which a conference must appear on its network, starting next season, it won’t matter where the games are played.

We’ve already seen plenty of what the NFL calls cross-flexing. The sight of two NFC teams playing on CBS was the norm from 1970 to ’93, but that’s long enough ago that such a game now draws an evil eye from routinized viewers.

Last season, CBS aired Bears games against the Giants and Buccaneers. It also took the Bears’ road game against the Raiders that normally would’ve gone to Fox, and Fox took the home game against the Bengals that would’ve gone to CBS. This season, Bears games have aired down party lines.

There’s the potential for more in-season cross-flexing when “Monday Night Football” gains access to flexible scheduling. The league hasn’t released any guidelines for flexing games from Sunday to Monday, but considering the logistics for networks and the impact on fans, expect a lot more advance notice than the minimum 12 days for moves to Sunday night.

A Monday night flex would’ve come in handy last week, when Fox was overloaded with prime matchups without a doubleheader: Titans-Eagles, Redskins-Giants and Packers-Bears early and Dolphins-49ers late. The Dolphins-49ers game, which pitted two likely playoff teams, was underdistributed. It would’ve been a better choice for Monday night than Saints-Buccaneers (or at least the first 57 minutes of it).

The NFL will have to walk a fine line to keep all of its broadcast partners happy. The idea is to put the best games in windows where the most fans can see them. But the league also has to be equitable with CBS and Fox, who are losing more games than ever to national windows with more international games (NFL Network), Monday night doubleheaders (ESPN) and a Black Friday game (Prime Video).

That’s where the extra flexibility beginning next season comes in. Like with the recently finalized Week 15 schedule, you might see more games revealed later in the season. It would help the league better assemble its weekly lineup, which draws more viewers than anything else on television. Fans are now accustomed to change, and many even revel in discussing which games might be flexed.

So enjoy the season of flexing. It’s only beginning.

Remote patrol

Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, said last week at a Sports Business Journal conference that its regional sports networks, including NBC Sports Chicago, would be available this year on its streaming service, Peacock. NBCU walked that back a bit, saying the broadcaster has been in discussions with partners and rights holders to make the RSNs available next year and it would share more details on specific markets, pricing and tiering as they become available.

The company recently added its NBC affiliates to Peacock’s Premium Plus tier ($9.99 per month), allowing subscribers to watch their local channel without requiring a cable or satellite subscription. Adding the RSNs would bolster Peacock’s sports offerings, which could drive subscriptions. NBCSCH and the company’s four other RSNs are available to stream on DirecTV Stream, fuboTV, Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV.

Audacy is adding “Stacey King’s Gimme the Hot Sauce” podcast to its menu of sports shows. The podcast, which features the Bulls’ TV analyst and Ch. 7 sportscaster Mark Schanowski, also will be promoted on The Score, which Audacy owns. King launched the podcast in 2020 and has published 119 episodes.

NFL regional games airing Sunday in the Chicago market: Jets at Bills, noon, Ch. 2 (Jim Nantz, Tony Romo); Vikings at Lions, noon, Fox-32 (Kenny Albert, Jonathan Vilma); Buccaneers at 49ers, 3:25 p.m., Fox-32 (Kevin Burkhardt, Greg Olsen).

NFL WEEK 15 UPDATED SCHEDULE

Dec. 17 (games moved from Dec. 18)

Colts at Vikings, noon, NFL Network

Ravens at Browns, 3:30 p.m., NFL Network

Dolphins at Bills, 7:15 p.m., NFL Network

Dec. 18

Falcons at Saints, noon, Fox-32 (not moved to Dec. 17)

Lions at Jets, noon, Ch. 2 (moved from Fox-32)

Patriots at Raiders, 3:05 p.m., Fox-32 (flexed out of prime time)

Giants at Commanders, 7:20 p.m., Ch. 5 (not moved to Dec. 17; flexed into prime time)

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