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NFL’s New TV Rights Deal is Exception, Not Rule for Upcoming Sports Negotiations

Even before its new TV deals became official, we knew the NFL’s new contracts with broadcast partners would be the richest ever. Still, that didn’t make it any less jarring when it was announced on Thursday that the new contracts would be worth $105 billion over the course of 11 years.

The dollar amount is eye-popping, of course. But the length of time is also pretty notable. By locking up a lucrative media rights deal for 11 years (through 2033), the NFL’s secured itself for the entirety of what should be a transformative decade in TV. While other leagues are set to renegotiate contracts amid linear TV continuing to bleed viewers, the NFL gets to blow right past that — leaving concerns around streaming migration to the networks instead.

Of course, this deal is not without streaming elements either. CBS (paying $1.85 billion per year) gets regional streaming rights for Paramount+ subscribers. NBC gets an exclusive Sunday Night feed for Peacock, and ESPN+ will be able to stream Monday Night Football as well. Even bigger is the fact that streaming will be an exclusive home to Thursday Night Football, as Amazon is set to shell out $1.32 billion per year for the rights to the least desirable game package the NFL has… though it’s still among the most-watched shows on TV because football.

But again, partitioning aspects of the rights deal to streaming didn’t force the NFL to make any less here — the increase on this deal compared to the last one is over 100%. The networks have more to figure out about how these games appear as time goes by. There’s no reality where those considerations result in fewer people watching football games, though. If games do shift primarily to streaming, it will only be because the market’s already dictated it. And the NFL — and networks — won’t be any worse off for the move.

You’re already seeing how networks will manage this transition while minimizing financial losses going forward (to-date, most of these services have been loss leaders, even with ads). NBCU announced this week that Peacock ads will get primetime rates. And Disney’s been approaching ads in a more unified fashion across networks, streaming and linear for the last year as well.

On top of securing the NFL’s financial future (never really in doubt to begin with), this has been a bit of an insurance policy for networks at time when things are incredibly uncertain. No other television property can help a TV property maintain or create relevance like NFL rights can. So this makes things less stressful for networks on the one hand. But also tasks them with something more difficult in the next four to five years: How to deal with all of the other sports rights that aren’t nearly as valuable.

The graph below is from before the NFL’s new deal, but as you can see, the NBA was the next-most valuable under the old deal… and it still wasn’t close.

Unlike the NFL, the rest of these leagues and conferences are largely volume plays. They get high viewership numbers compared to the rest of TV, yes, because it’s live sports. But it’s the total amount of games that make them valuable, provided the teams are compelling. The NFL could put the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football and it would be one of the most-watched shows of the week.

The NHL’s new deal with ESPN has already shown a glimpse of what new TV rights deals will look like. Yes, the league’s going to make more money (annual payouts between ESPN and likely NBC will. more than double the previous deal). It’s also going to have a lot of game inventory sent to streaming.

For ESPN, it’s a nice test run for what’s feasible for its “plus” streaming platform, and adding Monday Night games to that is another. In the long-term, the NHL will be fine having many games air on an ESPN+ app. In the short-term… there should be curiosity about whether hockey becomes even more of an afterthought in the national consciousness.

And that’s just now, when we’re seemingly at the start of a tipping point toward streaming. The NBA’s new rights deal is years out. Baseball’s seemingly secure but the next deal will be at the back end of this major transition for TV. As live audiences shrink — no matter where they’re watching — networks could second-guess how much non-NFL rights are worth.

Lesser leagues (some college conferences, lower-tier pro sports) could feel the brunt of this even more than top-tier rights like the NBA, MLB, SEC, Olympic and World Cup rights. With viewership increasingly drifting toward on-demand experiences, you have to wonder how much time audiences have for top-tier live sports, prestige dramas, news, archive comedies, movies, social video AND second-tier sports rights on top of all of that. There are only so many hours in a day, after all.

There was never any expectation for other leagues to make as much money as the NFL will with TV rights. Still, its lucrative, linear-centric deal should be seen as the exception as negotiations start over the next few years. If there’s anything to take from the NFL’s stipulations, it’s the streaming options — which could be ideal long-term, but for now, may not be seen as inventory of the same value consumers and league executives see linear TV as.