Once a year's enough

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:58 AM ET

It is a welcome treat for football fans and a cultural staple of U.S. Thanksgiving Day celebrations.

Once a year, the NFL makes an exception in its schedule, playing two mid-week games -- amid much pomp and celebration -- that are as much about tradition as competition.

One game early and one between courses would seem to be about the perfect helping of a good thing.

Except, that is, when greedy networks and owners get tempted to put their fingers in the pie.

A sidelight to the mammoth new NFL television contract signed recently is that the league has said it will consider adding more Thursday games.

The participating networks, which are coughing up sick stacks of cash -- a combined $8 billion over six years -- want more bang for their buck. That bang, officials from Fox and CBS have suggested, would be nice if it happened on Thursday prime-time shows late in the season.

NFL owners don't seem to mind too much, thankful that they are for the massive infusions of TV cash. Those involved in playing the games and more specifically, those planning for them, are opposed.

Coaches whose teams are conscripted to play in the annual Thanksgiving games already grumble about short work weeks in terms of preparation. For the most part, though, they suck it up to avoid looking like grumpy old men piddling on one of the most popular holidays in the U.S.

Add a half-dozen more games or so and you can be sure they wouldn't take it so peacefully. Fans will watch and you know ratings for a prime-time Thursday night game would be solid. The question worth asking: Wouldn't it also be watering down a good thing?

For the most part, the NFL has been very selective in making any additions to its schedule. One of the tenets of the NFL-AFL merger in the late 1960s was that games would be played primarily on Sundays, with Saturdays added only after the NCAA regular season had concluded.

In essence, the league was adhering to the age-old structure which decreed that Friday was for high schools, Saturdays for college and Sundays for the pros.

In fact, when the details of the merger were being ironed out, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle was an advocate of developing a Friday-night package.

When the late commish was advised against, Rozelle considered Thursday nights.

Coaches quickly shot that idea down citing the lack of preparation. That was left for Rozelle, as a third-choice consolation, to create what would become the wildly popular franchise of Monday Night Football.

The NFL has been careful to respect the system in place since and in fact it has helped perpetuate its popularity.

Which is more that can be said about those that run college football.

In recent years ESPN has been messing with the NCAA system first by adding Thursday night games. In the past few weeks, however, the U.S. all-sports giant has aired games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

It is difficult for the colleges to say no -- the prime-time exposure is a great recruiting tool. And for ESPN, no matter how small the school, football ratings always will be solid enough.

The NFL always has considered itself above such moves. Here's hoping the league lets fans continue to get their fill on Thanksgiving and save the rest for Sundays, Mondays and late-season Saturdays.


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