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tara sullivan

In NFL power circles, money is king and fans’ interests don’t seem to count

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently said that he and the team owners “put our fans first," but it is difficult to believe that.Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

When NFL owners voted this week to allow flex scheduling for select late-season “Thursday Night Football” games, the message to fans planning on attending those games was clear: We value the television audience over you. Sorry if you booked your flights or reserved your hotels, your Sunday game is now on Thursday, or your Thursday game is now on Sunday. Stinks for you.

Yet when the NFL and its blowhard-in-chief Roger Goodell announced just a week earlier that one of its wild-card playoff games would be streamed on Peacock, with only the two local markets getting the game on NBC, the message to fans watching the games also was clear: We don’t value our traditional television audience either, even if you’ve been boosting our ratings for decades.

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I would say it’s tough to figure out what the NFL does value if it’s not the fans in the stadiums and it’s not the ones in the living rooms, except that it isn’t tough at all. What the NFL values above all is money, and if it can find ways to make more money by bowing to Peacock, or Amazon (which paid for Thursday night streaming rights), or any other broadcast entity that can line the owners’ pockets with another few billion dollars, then that’s what the NFL will do.

Slap in the face to the fans? Absolutely, no matter how Goodell attempts to justify it.

“Listen, there isn’t anybody in that room, any of our organizations who don’t put our fans first. That’s really important,” the commissioner insisted in March. “Obviously, providing the best matchups for our fans is part of what we do. That’s part of what I think our scheduling has always focused on, and flex has been a part of that. We are very judicious with it and we’re very careful with it, and we look at all of the impacts of it.”

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Once again, the NFL is the league leader in hypocrisy. It cites player-safety concerns and a desire to reduce concussion rates for changing the kickoff rule, but that would be so much more believable if it wasn’t simultaneously ignoring player-safety concerns with these Thursday night gymnastics.

Players have made it clear that allowing two Thursday night games per team per season is incredibly hard on their bodies because of the short weeks.

“I hear from a lot of players directly, too,” Goodell countered. “They love the 10 days afterward. In fact, they call it a mini-bye, so there are benefits on that.

“You have different views. We want to consider all of them. Players have their views. Coaches have their views. We have to try to balance all of that.”

And then they do what they want.

Giants co-owner John Mara put a voice to the fan frustration back in March, when the idea of Thursday night flexing went public.

John Mara is one owner who is opposed to the idea of flexed scheduling when it comes to Thursday night.Abbie Parr/Associated Press

“I am adamantly opposed to that,” he told reporters at the owners meetings in Arizona. “Flexible scheduling, as it is, is really inconsiderate to our season ticket-holders and the people who fill our stadiums every week.

“People have gotten used to going from Sunday afternoon to Sunday night [when a game is flexed]. That doesn’t mean that they like it. This year, we can be flexed to Monday night, which I think is really inconsiderate to our ticket-holders.

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“But to flex a game back to Thursday night, to me, is just abusive, and I am adamantly opposed to it.”

His outrage was unable to persuade his fellow owners, however, not as they eyed better ratings (read: more money) by being able to replace a late-season dud of a matchup with a more attractive game. And while his stance there was laudable, Mara also was one of the owners who alienated large swaths of fans when the Giants began charging season ticket-holders for personal seat licenses.

Again, the fan who goes to the games, the fan who watches games, they just don’t seem to matter much anymore. The NFL monolith that once commandeered our Sunday afternoon attention has continued to slice itself into so many different pies, so much so that it doesn’t feel nearly as special as it used to. Sunday afternoons, Sunday evenings, and even Sunday mornings when kickoff is in Europe. Monday nights, with later and later starting times. Thursday nights. A Black Friday game this year. A full slate of Thanksgiving and Christmas Day games. Saturdays once the college football season is over.

For the NFL, enough is never enough.

Why else would it even entertain the idea of neutral-site conference championship games? That abominable notion floated to the surface after last season’s extraordinary Buffalo circumstances, when the Bills and Bengals lost a game on their schedule because of Damar Hamlin’s life-threatening on-field cardiac arrest.

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Of course the idea should be dismissed out of hand, obliterating as it would the hard-earned home-field advantage teams fought for all season, negating as it would the importance of regular-season games, ignoring as it would the last chance for devoted fans to see their beloved teams at home.

Again, follow the money. One glimpse at the corporate-laden coffers of the neutral-site Super Bowl turns NFL eyeballs into dollar signs, and the thought of spreading that to two more games a year, entertaining bidding wars for wannabe hosts, selling suites and naming rights and anything else they can think of, might eventually be too much for the league to ignore.

Sigh.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.