When I was a kid, some of the first rules I learned about the NFL had nothing to do with the game:
On Sundays, CBS carried games between NFC teams and NBC aired games between AFC teams. When teams from each conference squared off, CBS carried games with an NFC road team and NBC aired games with an AFC road team. It allowed the rights holder of each conference to broadcast from cities in the other conference. Simple enough.
Now, of course, CBS has the AFC and Fox the NFC. The league still follows the old rules, but not with the strictest of adherence. So when CBS aired the Vikings-Bears game in Week 4, some traditionalists might have had their sensibilities offended. The same held true last Sunday, when the Chargers visited the Bears on Fox. And in Week 10, the Lions-Bears game will be seen on CBS.
It’s called ‘‘cross-flexing,’’ the little brother of ‘‘flexing,’’ which moves games from Sunday afternoon to prime time on NBC. Flexing is much more ballyhooed and scrutinized because, more times than not, it’s essentially changing the game of the week. But cross-flexing can put games in prime spots, too, and it’s fascinating for scheduling nerds such as myself to dig into the minutiae of how and why it happens.
The idea behind cross-flexing, which began in 2014, is to give games a wider distribution than they otherwise would have. Considering the market advantages Fox has with the NFC package (for example, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington rank third through sixth in Nielsen’s 2019 designated-market-area rankings), the network is more likely to lose ‘‘better’’ games to CBS than the other way around.
Cross-flexing gives CBS make-good games to bridge the gap, and the Vikings-Bears game was an opportunity to do that. During the schedule-making process, the league thought that keeping the game on Fox, likely in the noon window, would make it available to only about 20 percent of the country. But on CBS, it could be the second game of a doubleheader and reach almost 90 percent.
And that’s where the network put it, giving the game a 3:25 p.m. kickoff and putting the top crew of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on the call. The audience responded with a 6 percent ratings increase compared with the Week 4 game in the national window last season, according to CBS.
Cross-flexing the Lions-Bears game wasn’t just about distribution; it also was about competition. In Week 10, Fox has the doubleheader, highlighted by Falcons-Saints at noon (it looked a lot better when the schedule came out in April) and Panthers-Packers and Rams-Steelers at 3:25. CBS has Chiefs-Titans, Bills-Browns and Ravens-Bengals at noon and Dolphins-Colts at 3:05. Fox could give up Lions-Bears and not be hurt too much ratings-wise, while CBS could use the boost of the Chicago market.
All of this begs the question: Why have AFC and NFC packages at all? Why not put every game up for bid among the networks, ESPN and NBC included, and see where they land? I posed that question to vice president of NFL broadcast planning and scheduling Mike North. (No, not that Mike North.)
‘‘I would say nothing is off the table right now as we look to the future,’’ he said. ‘‘Perhaps we get to a place where the Sunday afternoon packages are configured differently. Maybe more games become available on mobile devices or streaming services.
‘‘I’d love to see a day where we list many or even most of our games as ‘TBD’ and decide on dates and times and networks much closer to kickoff than we do now, like we are doing now for the Saturday games in Week 16 [when three of five TBD games will air on NFL Network]. That’s the only way to ensure that our best games end up in the most widely distributed windows. It’s very rare that our crystal ball is as clear in April as we’d like it to be.’’
In the meantime, conference allegiance will remain the rule. But expect more exceptions to come.