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NFL in No Rush to Become Streaming-Only, Despite Sunday Ticket Move and Games on Prime Video, ESPN+

David Satin

The reviews are in for the streaming-only debut of “Thursday Night Football” on Prime Video and for the most part, they were positive. In keeping with their standard policy, Amazon is not sharing most of its in-house data on viewership for the game, but it did release that the retail giant saw a record number of Prime Video signups in a three-hour window during the game; however, the company did not provide details as to what those numbers were.

The game was, by most accounts a success for both Prime Video and the NFL; though some technical issues were reported, most fans with solid internet connections were able to enjoy a good stream rate and high picture quality. Fans also had praise for Prime Video’s in-game features, like All-22 camera angles and player ID tags.

The move to a streaming-only format for “TNF” was a big risk for the NFL. Last season, Thursday night games aired simultaneously on FOX alongside the Prime Video stream, and Amazon had to lower expectations regarding viewership numbers as compared to last year. Taking away a linear broadcast that was available in practically every home in favor of making it available only on a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service could have cost the league a lot, even with the reported $1 billion per season that Amazon is paying to exclusively stream “TNF.”

Given that the move to Prime Video has been a success thus far — and an ESPN+ only game scheduled for next month — it is fair to wonder if the ever-escalating demise of broadcast and cable TV could lead to a streaming-only future for pro football. While that might be an unavoidable eventuality as all entertainment will likely be streaming at some point in the future, there is more than one reason that the league may be slow to move to an exclusively streaming format.

For one, the league’s proprietary streaming platform NFL+, which launched over the summer, has not been the rousing success that “TNF’s” debut was. Fans were frustrated by the limitations of mobile-only streaming for preseason games in August, and experienced functionality issues with the app once the regular season began.

Another issue that the NFL may see in moving to a streaming-only format is the money involved. The league’s last TV rights distribution deal added up to $110 billion over an eleven-year window, spread across Prime Video, CBS, NBC, Fox, and ESPN/ABC. That means that a streaming-only NFL couldn’t come into play until 2032, at the earliest, without huge financial penalties.

The CEO Bob Bakish of Paramount Global (CBS’s parent company) spoke last week at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia + Technology Conference about the value of the NFL to his and other linear networks.

“You’ve got to have the best sports because second-tier stuff doesn’t really matter,” he said. “But if you look at what we have, whether it’s the NFL — which again, Week 1 [was] up 20% … — it’s [a] super valuable product in linear and in streaming.”

Bakish is clearly not the only CEO who feels this way, considering how much companies were willing to pay for just a slice of the NFL pie. Trying to buy rights to the entire pie is likely beyond the financial means of any company, even one with the deep pockets and financial stability of a company like Amazon or Apple, who is considered the leader to land the NFL Sunday Ticket out-of-market package beginning next season. The competition for broadcast rights also gives the NFL leverage to drive up the price, leverage the league won’t be keen to let go of.

That being said, no one running the NFL from a financial perspective is stupid. The league knows the potential value of making its product available to stream and will undoubtedly expand its streaming offerings in some capacity in the future. A big step forward in that direction may happen when the league sells the rights to Sunday Ticket, which will leave DIRECTV after this season. Apple, Amazon, and even Google are at the forefront of negotiations for the rights.

If Apple or Amazon lands the deal for Sunday Ticket, its days as a linear service will be over. But that may be the most drastic step toward a streaming-only NFL that the league is willing to take in the near term. The future of live sports may be on streaming, but the NFL will likely take a long and winding path to get to that future, as long as the rights deals continue to climb.

NFL Sunday Ticket

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Users can choose to add NFL RedZone, which bounces from game to game. But Sunday Ticket is superior for fans who want to see every play of their favorite teams, even if they don’t live where the games are locally televised.

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