• With Facebook and Apple Out of NFL Thursday Night Bidding, Who’s in the Pole Position Now?

    Late Friday afternoon, Bloomberg reported that Facebook had dropped out of the bidding for streaming rights to the NFL’s Thursday night package. That news followed Recode’s report from last month that Apple had also withdrawn. With two of the most likely candidates now gone, the only digital players remaining who are both big enough to afford the deal and for whom it potentially makes enough strategic sense are likely Verizon, Google and Amazon (I’m excluding Yahoo since its own instability almost certainly precludes a bid).

    Bloomberg’s source said Facebook didn’t like the NFL’s ad policy for the games and also didn’t like the London games that come with the deal. All of that may well be true, but, as I was quoted telling Variety last month, I think a big sticking point was also the lack of mobile rights to the games, which are held by Verizon through next season. With the vast majority of Facebook’s usage now on mobile devices, the inability to stream to mobile surely diminished the value of the deal to Facebook.

    Of the 3 remaining players, I’d handicap Verizon as the most likely eventual winner. As mentioned above, it has mobile rights already. Go90 is a major priority for the company, so folding in the NFL games would be a big boost. With Verizon’s strategy shifting from multichannel video to mobile, proving that marquee content can be streaming to millions via mobile would be a great proof point. Finally, via its AOL acquisition, Verizon has also become big player in ad tech and data, both of which could be very useful in monetizing the games (and which the NFL would no doubt like to learn from as well).

    Amazon has also placed a huge emphasis on video, but it’s critical to remember that for the e-commerce giant, video is in service to its Prime membership subscriptions, rather than being a standalone revenue stream. Over the past couple of years, Amazon has proven to itself that on-demand entertainment video can drive Prime acquisitions and retention. But there’s no such proof for live sports, so bidding for the NFL rights would be a blind swing for Amazon, something the company is not known for doing.

    It’s always impossible to discount Google from any bidding situation given its deep pockets. The NFL deal could add value to the still amorphous YouTube Red subscription service, and it could also complement YouTube’s pending YouTube Connect live streaming feature. No doubt Google would have some creative ways to monetize the games as well.

    Still, it’s hard to see how the NFL games fit into an over-arching Google or YouTube strategy. And remember, since Google hired CFO Ruth Porat a year ago, the company has split its moonshot projects into a separate company so core Alphabet spending is much more rigorously evaluated. Any big NFL bid would need to have clear business case support.

    There’s one other wildcard path to consider, which is that the NFL does a course correction and instead awards the streaming rights to CBS and NBC for an incremental fee to their new Thursday night deals (remember they currently only include authenticated streaming). For CBS in particular, Thursday night streaming rights could fit well with CBS All Access.

    The whole Thursday night digital bidding approach is really a big experiment by the NFL to see if it can triple dip for broadcast rights, because in addition to the games being split by CBS and NBC, they’re also on NFL Network. It’s certainly possible that the NFL could ultimately decide against a digital-only deal, recognizing there’s more synergy and upside by having its broadcast partners stream as well.  

    With a lot of uncertainty in the sports TV business in general these days, it’s conceivable that the digital players will bid modestly, in order to see how TV rights deals evolve in the face of increasing pushback by pay-TV operators against absorbing higher carriage fees. In other words, rather than setting an expensive streaming precedent themselves, they could take a wait-and-see approach as turmoil in the sports TV business continues to unfold.

    All of this is part of the highly unsettled TV/video landscape we’re all witnessing.