TV’s most important piece of inventory has long been the NFL’s fall slate of games. The current eight-year deal has broadcasters paying out billions per year. And according to a December report from the New York Post, the next deal in 2022 could be worth more than $100 billion for a decade of TV rights.
For all the “ratings decline” talk, NFL games still generated over 2.5x more TV ad impressions (164.4 billion) than any other show in 2020, per iSpot.tv. It’s the only U.S. pro sports league to largely keep its schedule intact while dealing with COVID-19. And with just eight regular season home games per team, the impact of losing in-person fans is potentially a lot lower than it is for the NBA and NHL (41 home games per team) or MLB (81 home games per team).
If the $100 billion-plus estimate is on target (and even if it falls a bit short of that), the NFL will be able to comfortably coast into the 2030s with more financial stability than the other three major professional sports leagues. The biggest thing that really stands in the way of a future dominated by the NFL is safety concerns and how that potentially erodes youth interest in the game over time. But we’re years out from what happens as a result of that.
The NFL’s financial security from the upcoming media rights are obviously taken care of by TV partners. CBS, FOX and NBC will all be back with similar packages to what they have now, as is ESPN (and/or maybe sister network ABC). The New York Post report notes that Amazon — a streaming partner for Thursday nights for years now — could play a bigger role in TV rights, with exclusivity around the Thursday night game (they’ve split those to-date).
If they can find ways to transform how that game content is consumed (and they may already have the bones of that with Twitch) it’s an interesting way for Amazon to continue to evolve as an entertainment brand. It also paves the way for Amazon to handle future sports media rights when other leagues and college conference deals are up. That’ll come into focus more if linear TV fails to bounce back from COVID as intended, and media companies aren’t as quick to write big checks for these events anymore. We’ve already seen some of that pre-COVID from ESPN amid overweight media rights concerns, and it could very well continue for them and other networks.
Thursday nights aren’t the only place where streaming could get involved either, as DirecTV’s long-time control over NFL Sunday Ticket (interesting, since the retention of Sunday Ticket was one of the main stipulations of AT&T’s original acquisition of the satellite provider) appears to be coming to an end. As the New York Post notes, Sunday Ticket’s future may no longer be exclusive, and the league could potentially make more money allowing several streaming providers like Amazon, ESPN+ and/or Apple TV+ to pay for the service.
Amazon would appear to be the most invested in doing so. Though another potential darkhorse: Verizon, which has FiOS, but also already airs live games via the NFL mobile app. Exclusivity would probably be desired, but bundling a Sunday Ticket-type offering with wireless, internet and/or cable service could be an interesting play that mimics what AT&T’s tried to do (rather unsuccessfully) with those same NFL rights.
Should ESPN+ get involved, it would immediately evolve the streaming service into ESPN’s main piece of business (something we discussed late last year). If Apple TV+ were to house the rights, it’s a game-changing move that likely adds a lot of new subscribers there and finally gives the service the anchor it’s lacked, despite how good Ted Lasso was.
As live broadcast audiences shrink and most of those media conglomerates establish streaming services to cope with the changing TV viewing environment, the NFL also serves as something to keep linear networks afloat. Linear’s not going anywhere, but the networks that air games still very much need the NFL to retain value to consumers and MVPDs.
What will be most interesting in these new deals is whether or not the likes of ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal and Disney incorporate elements of their respective streaming services into those media rights. FOX isn’t losing its Sunday afternoon NFC games. But Fox Sports Go probably doesn’t impact the bottom line at Fox in the same way that Paramount+, Peacock and Hulu/Disney+/ESPN+ do for its fellow NFL broadcast partners. Opting for streaming-exclusive games to boost subscribers could be one idea going forward, and it’s already being test-run by NBC as it puts certain Premier League games on Peacock only. ESPN+ also has exclusives to that service, but it’s also been an overflow app largely focused on streaming games since its inception. It’s yet to move the biggest, previously primetime TV games to that service.
The NFL gets to be both king and kingmaker as the media rights sort themselves out. And with an expanded playoff field (up from 12 to 14) and a possible 17-game schedule (one more than current) on the horizon, it seems very little is slowing the league or its partners as the future of TV starts taking shape with football remaining at its center.