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CBS Sports chairman confident network will retain Sunday afternoon NFL rights

CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus does not expect NFL rights negotiations to begin until early next decade and he is confident that the broadcast network will still be playing on Sundays when its current contract expires after the 2022 season. It just might be with a somewhat different package.

Speaking at the TV2020 conference at the NAB Show Oct. 17, McManus called live NFL games "the most valuable programming on television" and one that wields the "biggest hammer" in terms of ratings and advertising and helping CBS Corp. continue to reap significant retransmission-consent revenues.

He said CBS (US) "will defend its territory," the American Football Conference package, but hinted that CBS is interested in a schedule that "aligns more equally" with the National Football Conference. FOX (US) is the rights holder of that package, which is home to teams in larger markets that produce higher ratings.

That dynamic is already in flux as more games initially scheduled to appear on FOX or CBS on Sunday afternoons have been "flexed" to the other network to maximize overall NFL ratings potential. The league’s three prime-time packages — NBC (US)'s "Sunday Night Football," ESPN (US)'s "Monday Night Football" and FOX's new 11-game "Thursday Night Football" slate — all feature matchups that cross-conference boundaries.

McManus was asked about potential bidding competition for major NFL rights from digital companies, including Amazon.com Inc.'s Prime Video, which livestreams "Thursday Night Football" alongside the linear simulcasts on FOX and NFL Network (US). Although he said the FAANG companies — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google — have the financial wherewithal to make a large bid to win primary package rights, he does not envision the NFL punting on the broadcast networks due to their large audience reach.

"The NFL would have to think hard about that," he said. "It would be a risk for the NFL."

Relative to the ratings revival for the league over the first six weeks, McManus cited a number of reasons, including higher-scoring contests and teams with younger quarterbacks — notably the Kansas City Chiefs — attracting more attention. He added that most of the controversy surrounding players kneeling during the national anthem has waned and that with the country engulfed in political divisiveness more people may be turning back to NFL games as a means of escape.

Relative to Super Bowl LIII, which CBS will televise, McManus said that ad sales for the NFL championship game are "very strong right now; there's a lot of interest. We all read what the price is going to be, we all read that it's $5 million-plus, and that's true. The Super Bowl is going to be a great way for us to end what I think is going to be a very successful NFL season."