In doing his bit to help give departing ESPN anchor Kenny Mayne a proper sendoff, an exceptionally relaxed Aaron Rodgers may have sent more than a few execs in the Green Bay Packers’ front office fumbling for the Ativan. The TV networks that rely on the Pack to deliver big ratings, meanwhile, aren’t nearly as anxious about the ongoing freeze-out.
Speaking from his Hawaiian vacation digs, Rodgers on Monday offered a decidedly oblique assessment of the rift that’s opened between himself and management. “It’s just kind of about a philosophy, and maybe forgetting that [it’s] people that make the thing go,” Rodgers said. “It’s about character; it’s about culture; it’s about doing things the right way.”
Sidestepping Mayne’s direct line of questioning as to whether he’s demanding a trade, Rodgers instead rattled off a brief catalogue of his enthusiasms (“I love [the] coaching staff, love my teammates. I love the fan base in Green Bay”), before following up with a jokey, if noncommittal, status update. “Anything’s on the table at this point,” Rodgers said, in response to Mayne’s suggestion to use the Fan Controlled Football League as a bargaining chip with the brass.
If Rodgers didn’t exactly give general manager Brian Gutekunst & Co. much to work with, the Canton-bound QB seems to be equally in the dark about his future in Green Bay. (As Mayne assessed the situation, “It sounds like you don’t know, actually.”) This ambiguity puts the Packers in a tough spot, although Rodgers’ unprecedented absence during this week’s voluntary OTAs may prove to be a precursor to a more permanent disappearing act.
Should Rodgers strong-arm Green Bay into cutting him loose, this will present all sorts of difficulties for the TV networks that have banked on his drawing power for the last 13 years. The Packers this season are slated to appear in no fewer than 11 national TV windows, tying them with Dallas as the NFL’s most ubiquitous franchise. Perhaps no network might stand to reap the benefits of a reconciliation than would Fox, which this fall is set to produce five of the team’s coast-to-coast games, including three Sunday afternoon windows and a pair of Thursday Night Football outings.
Based on Fox’s average unit pricing for each of the 30-second spots that air during its “America’s Game of the Week” showcase and in TNF, those five Packers games should generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $268 million in ad revenue. And while that’s a nice chunk of change, the Fox Sports division isn’t overly concerned with how Rodgers’ alleged wanderlust might erode the perceived value of those five TV windows.
Speaking shortly after the 2021 NFL TV schedule was released on May 12, Fox Sports executive VP and head of strategy and analytics Mike Mulvihill said the Rodgers situation cast a bit of a shadow over the process of constructing the 18-week grid. The fortunes of the Packers and Fox have been intertwined since the network began airing NFL games back in 1994, which is when an absolute freewheeling maniac, with a thermobaric grenade launcher for a right arm, made Green Bay a can’t-miss TV draw.
“There’s no question that our preferred outcome…is that the reigning MVP is back at Lambeau Field and quarterbacking the Packers for the entire season,” Mulvihill said, before adding that Fox’s Sunday schedule offers sufficient leeway to make allowances should Rodgers pull a Claude Rains. “We really have a lot of flexibility to move things around, to address events as they happen.”
Airing games at 1 p.m. and 4:25 p.m. ET gives Fox more options to swap games out in the event the scheduled contest promises to be a dud. (The same applies to CBS, which airs an all-but-identical Sunday afternoon slate.) For example, in Week 11 of last season, Fox was scheduled to carry the Cowboys-Vikings clash in its late national window. While that matchup looked great on paper back in September, by the time Dallas staggered into U.S. Bank Stadium, they had compiled a 2-7 record while the home team was 4-5. Rather than subject 83% of the country to this unappetizing exhibition, Fox swapped in a 1 p.m. Packers-Colts shootout that went to OT and scared up 23.9 million viewers—the network’s second-biggest Sunday NFL audience in 2020.
The unrelenting awfulness of the NFC East left Fox scrambling to cover much of the back half of its 2020 season. Dallas on Dec. 27 was booted from a national window for an unprecedented third time—NBC dumped its scheduled 49ers-Cowboys game for Browns-Giants the week before —as Fox brokered a trade with CBS, shipping Bears-Jags in exchange for Rams-Seahawks.
Looking ahead to the 2021 NFL campaign, while Fox should be well covered on Sundays if Rodgers and Green Bay have a parting of the ways, the Packers’ scheduled Week 9 meeting with the Chiefs looks more or less irreplaceable. Should this first meeting between Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes proceed as planned, it will almost certainly give Fox its highest regular-season rating. If Jordan Love or Blake Bortles are under center for the Pack, Fox can take solace in the fact that it will air both Dallas-Giants games, has three Tom Brady appearances on tap and has the benefit of another Mahomes outing in the Nov. 21 Cowboys-Chiefs pairing.
For its part, CBS’ Rodgers exposure is limited to a pair of national games. If the Eye Network isn’t terribly enthused by the prospect of a worst-case-scenario Mason Rudolph-Jordan Love skirmish in Week 4, it has two equally compelling interconference alternatives in Chiefs-Eagles and Browns-Vikings. Should personnel changes invalidate the Week 10 Seahawks-Packers offering, CBS’ best course of action may be to petition Fox to hand off its 1 p.m. Tampa-Washington game.
NBC, for its part, has little cause to fear a Rodgers resettlement, as two of the Packers’ three Sunday Night Football appearances are covered by the NFL’s flexible scheduling rules. While Fox and CBS may each protect one game per week, that leaves nine backups for NBC if the Week 14 Bears-Packers game looks less than compelling, and no fewer than a dozen alternatives in Week 17.
As for Rodgers, the chatter about his future prospects likely will pick up again if he sits out the Packers’ mandatory minicamp, which kicks off on June 8. Meanwhile, to cap off what will probably be the last time he speaks openly about his job, Rodgers gave the final word to Mayne. In his inimitable fashion, the anchor playfully spiked the metaphorical football in his friend’s face before sauntering off the SportsCenter set for the last time.
“Hey, last thing: Last time we did an interview together, you told me to go heavy in the cryptocurrency game,” Mayne said. “I did. Uh, we’re down 40%, then I lost my job. Gretchen just wants a new comforter. F— you, Aaron Rodgers.”
Rodgers laughed and said, “I love you, Ken.” Don’t get any ideas, Brian Gutekunst.
(This story has updated the headline.)