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NFL Sunday Ticket, Apple Negotiations Hit Stumbling Block over Restrictions; What Could Be Preventing Deal?

Matt Tamanini

At one point this year, some believed that Apple winning the rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket package was a foregone conclusion, however, that appears to no longer be the case. According to CNBC's Alex Sherman, negotiations between the tech giant and the NFL have hit a snag over certain restrictions surrounding the popular out-of-market package.

Sherman reports that “existing restrictions” have prevented the two sides from closing the deal, but negotiations are still continuing. The report does not specify what those restrictions are, but the package does come with a number of complicated strings. In July, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that he believed that Sunday Ticket would end up on a streaming service beginning next year, in part, because of the innovation that such a platform could bring to the product; he also said that he expected an announcement to come this fall.

This season has brought the NFL’s first streaming-exclusive games to Prime Video with “Thursday Night Football” officially landing on the Amazon platform. Though the streaming launch wasn’t without issues, it has proven to be popular with fans with ratings continuing to out-pace previous traditional-TV airings.

However, there are inherent limitations to carrying Sunday Ticket that Apple could be balking over. Since the package provides broadcasts of games available on local CBS and FOX stations, the networks have a clause in their contracts with the league that requires Sunday Ticket to be priced as a “premium” service, in order to limit its impact on local broadcasts.

Beginning at $293.94 for a season, and going as high as nearly $400, Apple could be concerned that the price tag could prevent customers who are already weary of escalating streaming prices to commit to paying for the package. Expected to fetch between $2 billion and $3 billion per year, with inflation at the forefront of many consumers’ minds and a pullback across many streaming services reshaping the industry, it is possible that Apple doesn’t see a profitable path forward at the current prices. In a recent study by The Streamable, only 26% of NFL fans are willing to pay up to the current $300 base price, but nearly double would sign-up at a lower price.

NFL Sunday Ticket is also currently only offered in the United States by its long-time provider DIRECTV. However, as arguably the largest and most recognized company in the world, Apple could be pushing to take the package international, opening up availability to football fans around the world. In some other markets, like Canada, DAZN currently owns the rights to NFL Sunday Ticket.

As the league does domestically, a sticking point could be over different international broadcast contracts that had not accounted for the possibility of a worldwide Sunday Ticket. If Apple can’t offer the package overseas, that could change the company’s financial calculus when coming to an agreement.

Another possibility that could be getting in the way of finalizing a deal could be a feature that many other sports leagues offer in their out-of-market packages. Both NBA League Pass and MLB.TV allow fans to subscribe to just the games of specific teams at a lower price than for the full package. To this point, that has never been an option for Sunday Ticket as offered by DIRECTV. However, if Apple is hoping to provide customers the option to just stream their favorite team’s games — without having to pay for the full complement of contests — this could create some friction between the NFL and its broadcast partners, perhaps lowering the price below that “premium” threshold.

Earlier this year, Apple signed a 10-year deal to broadcast every game featuring a Major League Soccer team, giving the platform the ability to air some games for free, to make some available to Apple TV+ subscribers, and to put the vast majority of matches in a standalone streaming package. The tech company will not have that type of flexibility when working with the NFL because of the league’s complicated, longstanding rights agreements with just about every major media company in the U.S.

However, that is actually one of the major reasons that many onlookers believe that Apple will end up being the ultimate destination for Sunday Ticket. The NFL has proven that it likes to diversify its media partners as much as possible. This season, the league will air games on all four major broadcast networks, in addition to multiple cable channels and two streaming services. Amazon and Disney (likely for ESPN+) are the other two main contenders for the Sunday Ticket package, but they are both already broadcast partners with the league.

So, if the NFL would like to get into business with another gigantic corporation — allowing them to become a focal point for an even larger user base — granting the rights to Apple would do just that. However, whether the two sides can work through their current stumbling blocks or not is yet to be seen. Whichever streamer ends up being Sunday Ticket’s new home, it will undoubtedly like to begin marketing the package before the end of this season, in order to capitalize on the front-of-mind fervor associated with the playoff run.

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