Inside Slant: Thursday nights get a boost

So we have an answer to the question we've been discussing on Twitter and here on ESPN.com during the past couple days. Yes, the NFL without question took care to boost the Thursday night package it sold to CBS this past winter.

All but one of the 16 games feature intra-division matchups, one of three criteria we established in determining the quality of a prime-time schedule. As the charts below show, that's 40 percent more than the number of divisional games played during the 2013 Thursday night schedule.

In fact, if you study the numbers, you see that the CBS portion of the schedule -- half of the 14 Thursday night games and two games to be played on Saturday in Week 16 -- is on par with ESPN's "Monday Night Football" on a pro-rated basis. The second half of the schedule, to be aired only on the NFL Network, drops off a bit from there.

Remember, we're judging these schedules based on three criteria:

  • Divisional matchups

  • Games between 2013 playoff teams

  • How many of the NFL's 10 most popular teams, as determined by the 2013 Harris Interactive poll, will make appearances.

As we've discussed, the NFL has substantial incentive to upgrade the quality of its Thursday product. CBS reportedly paid between $250 million and $275 million for a one-year deal. The agreement requires it to allow a simulcast on the NFL Network, and even when the games shift exclusively to the NFL Network, CBS must still produce them.

Given those terms, it's fair to imagine how many multiples of $250 million the league could fetch for a full and exclusive Thursday schedule. (For context, recall that ESPN is paying the NFL $1.9 billion annually for "Monday Night Football" and other considerations.)

Before putting the full Thursday night package up for bidding, of course, the NFL would be well served to raise the profile of what is usually an also-ran schedule of games. Pitting divisional teams against each other, given the natural rivalries that exist, is a good start. It also is the most logical workaround to a league stipulation that all 32 teams play on Thursday at least once during the season.

The numbers in the chart suggest that, at first glance, the elevated Thursday night schedule didn't come at the expense of either the Sunday night or Monday night schedules. NBC actually got eight more appearances by "popular teams" in its schedule and ESPN got six. Changes elsewhere were negligible, and NBC got a big gift that allows it to flex two additional games between Weeks 5-10. (Weekly flex rules pick up beginning in Week 11.)

What is the long-term future of the Thursday night package? I'm not sure we can answer that. But its 2014 schedule suggests the NFL is bullish on it, and if nothing else, fans seeking a midweek slate of football should get some better options this season.