If you think Thursday Night Football (TNF)is the only opportunity the NFL has to change and expand its live game viewing options for fans, think again.
With the league's TNF deal due to end with this season and the addition of regular season games to be played across the pond in U.K. venues; the league is considering many game delivery options that won't disrupt longstanding relationships with its broadcast TV network partners.
The league says it will announce its TNF plays for the 2016 season in the Super Bowl timeframe. The NFL is expected to reveal its international series plans this week.
While many fans have been led to believe that the NFL's long-running TV deals with its broadcast partners seriously limit the league's ability to explore newer and different delivery options, the truth is that the league has plenty of room in which to move in conjunction with - or in addition to - its long-term allies.
Pleased with its global game live stream last month with new partner Yahoo, the NFL is mulling ways to deliver more games via the Internet for next season as a mean to develop options for U.S. fans while extending its reach far beyond the 50 states, where games are rarely carried on regular TV.
Here are some major opportunities for change under consideration by the NFL:
- Thursday Night Football. Until two years ago, you had to subscribe to the NFL Network channel to see games televised on Thursday nights. In 2014, the league teamed with CBS to simulcasthalfof the TNF game lineup which greatly extended the viewing audience. CBS produced the games as well.
That one-year, for an estimated $275 million deal expired at the end of the 2014 season so the two parties entered another one year agreement, reportedly worth $300 million, to cover this season. The league has an option to extend the deal for a third year.
When the deal expires, the league will be free to extend its relationship with CBS or turn to one or more others companies to show the games for those without NFL Network.
Who else might be in the running for this business? Certainly other broadcast TV channels such as NBC, ABC and Fox. It has been reported that several other online players such as Google competed to land the one-game streaming deal that Yahoo landed for $17-$20 million to live stream last month's Buffalo-Jacksonville game.
The NFL is limited in the number of TNF games it can broadcast as the NFL Network is a premium channel and those cable TV providers need to have enough games exclusively on it for it to make sense to sell as a channel or as part of a pay extra sports programming package as is most common.
- International Series games. Already this season, the NFL has agreed to play more games at more venues in England in the seasons ahead. These are prime opportunities for global live streaming along the lines of what Yahoo delivered last months. The NFL could choose different online companies to stream different across-the-pond matches live.
The beauty of the Yahoo deal was that the NFL balanced the streaming with the interests of broadcasters by allowing the Buffalo-Jacksonville game to be shown in the teams' local markets on regular TV. Look for the league to stay with this approach going forward regardless of whom they choose for future live game streaming.
Next year, three NFL games will be played in London, just like in 2014 and up from two since the 2013 season. A game in Mexico could be added next season. The league only had one game there from 2007 and 2012.
The NFL could choose to bid out global digital (streaming) rights for the non-U.S. games to one winner or spread them across several on a game-by-game basis. The value of the streaming games could bring in more revenue-wise if sold to one entity, though the NFL could be interested in seeing what a variety of online companies could do with a game, as Yahoo did.
The league is considering a creative means to stage these games without the participating teams lose the revenue from a home contest. That would be achieved by designating London games as away games for both teams in each contest.
- Split Contracts. With a property such as the league-owned NFL Network, the sports could choose to have a broadcaster carry the game for traditional TV and a streamer carry it over the web as Yahoo did in October. It sounds unlikely but TNF is the one property where the league has the most room to move soonest. And everything is on the table when considering options for NFL Network going forward, the league says.
It's more likely that the NFL would look to repeat the approach it used with Yahoo by having a streamer take the game globally online while having the broadcast TV outlet in each team's home market show the game on regular TV.
- Combo Deals. Remember that at least one NFL's broadcast TV partners – CBS – is also streaming games and not just at playoff time. For example, CBS is live streaming two regular season games free (including one from London), and without requiring fans to authenticate.
The NFL could go to CBS for TNF next year in a deal that includes broadcast TV and web streaming. When it comes to experience on the Internet with live sports, CBS has been a pioneer, having taken the March Madness multi-week basketball tourney to the online masses at the turn of the century.
CBS continues to stream on this season by agreeing to stream the AFC playoffs and Super Bowl 50. It's reportedly paying over $1 billion a year through 2022 for its NFL rights.
In something of an extra for many fans, CBS says Verizon Wireless NFL Mobile users will be able to view the games it streams whether they are played locally and/or in primetime.
The Bottom Line
With traditional TV viewing as high as many expect it can go, it's no surprise that everything is on the table for TNF, international games and possibly more. The changes may not be epic, but they will be significant for all involved.
Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC.