The NFL announced yesterday that it was splitting broadcast rights to Thursday Night Football in 2016 and 2017 between CBS and NBC. The WSJ reported that each network will pay $225 million for the annual rights, a 50% increase over the $300 million per season that CBS alone had been paying.
But the higher broadcast fees are just the beginning of how the NFL will more fully monetize the upcoming seasons. More intriguing were the sentences from the NFL’s press release: "The NFL is in active discussions with prospective digital partners for OTT streaming rights to Thursday Night Football. A deal announcement is expected in the near future."
Note that all of the Thursday night games will ALREADY be simulcast on the league’s own NFL Network. So with the OTT deal, the result will be, as Commissioner Roger Goodell said in the press release, “a unique tri-cast on broadcast, cable and digital platforms.” Said another way, the NFL has managed to skin this cat three ways, selling rights to deliver the SAME games to three sets of partners - the NFL Network, CBS/NBC and the forthcoming digital partner. Damn, these NFL guys are good.
But the streaming deal raises a host of questions. First, what streaming rights do CBS and NBC get for their $225 million per season? The NFL’s press release didn’t specify, but the WSJ reported they’ll only be able to stream for authenticated pay-TV subscribers. For CBS, this contrasts with its approach for this Sunday’s Super Bowl, when the game stream will be freely available on OTT via Roku, Apple TV, Xbox One and Windows 10.
Next, if the Thursday night games will be equally available for free on OTT, then doesn’t that suggest the NFL is embracing cord-cutters and cord-nevers, in turn undercutting the often-cited narrative of live sports as pay-TV’s “firewall?” If Thursday night games are free on OTT, then doesn’t that give sports fans one less reason to feel compelled to subscribe to pay-TV, undercutting the industry’s critical TV Everywhere initiative? Meanwhile, with entertainment programming becoming ever more abundantly available on SVOD, shouldn’t live sports’ role in the pay-TV bundle become ever more critical to pay-TV? And won’t fragmenting audiences to an OTT outlet actually diminish the CBS and NBC audiences, driving down the value of their deals, despite them having paid even more for 2016 and 2017 rights?
Of course it’s also worth speculating who’s going to win the Thursday night streaming deal. Google/YouTube? Apple? Facebook? Amazon? Hulu? Netflix? MLBAM? Microsoft? Yahoo? (OK, probably not Yahoo given its troubles). There are ample reasons for any of these companies to take the games, and for all of them the financial outlay would be relatively small in the scheme of things (though clearly smaller for the behemoths than for the others). For the winning bidder, how will the games be integrated into their overall video strategies (e.g. could Amazon make them available only to Prime members? Would YouTube have skippable ads?). Finally, to the extent that digital distribution shows the NFL vast new possibilities, what are the consequences for subsequent rights deals for 2018 and beyond? Will traditional broadcast partners be eclipsed?
You can’t blame the NFL for wanting to capitalize as fully as possible on the rights fees for Thursday Night Football. But the OTT approach further muddies an already murky picture for the value of TV and pay-TV. The NFL has prospered mightily from sports TV’s economics. Now it is going to try to pull off the delicate act of preserving that revenue stream while tapping into digital’s upside. The full consequences of this are very hard to predict.