When the dust settles on the next set of NFL rights deals, the revised roster could include a streaming player tackling a major package of games, media executives said.
The existing deals for the out-of-market NFL Sunday Ticket package, now held by AT&T Inc.'s DIRECTV, and "Monday Night Football" from ESPN (US) expire after the 2021 season, while the Sunday afternoon and night packages and "Thursday Night Football" deals are co-terminus upon the conclusion of the 2022 regular season and Super Bowl LVII airing on Fox Corp.'s FOX (US).
Sports media executives on a panel at the NAB Show New York conference emphasized that the NFL will retain a strong broadcast roster. Currently, CBS Corp.'s CBS (US) and FOX hold the Sunday afternoon packages, with the latter televising the main "Thursday Night Football" offering and NBC (US) airing "Sunday Night Football," prime-time's most-watched program eight years running.
The broadcast networks want to retain not only their strong ratings and high advertising rates but also their NFL positions, said Doug Perlman, CEO of Sports Media Advisors LLC. This enables them to promote their entertainment schedules and other parts of their portfolios while driving retransmission-consent fees, he said. Pay TV operators pay retrans fees to broadcasters in exchange for permission to carry local stations' signals.
Chris Bevilacqua, co-founder of sports media advisory Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures, said that with the NFL Players Association and the league negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, a new deal could yield more NFL inventory through an additional week of the regular season and two more playoff contests via an additional postseason round. Bevilacqua said the NFL could adjust the current Sunday lineup — where CBS is the primary rights holder to the American Football Conference, and FOX holds the rights to the National Football Conference — by integrating the schedules.
He expects that tech players could find a place on Sunday afternoon or "Monday Night Football" as the NFL could carve up those packages in a manner akin to where Amazon.com Inc.'s Prime Video simulcasts some of the "TNF" package. But he is not convinced tech companies are ready to step up to a primary package, owing in part to what it would take relative to a full production role.
Conversely, Adam Schwartz, senior vice president and director of the sports media investment team at Horizon Media, thinks one of the tech companies will snare at least an exclusive piece of a primary package.
"The NFL will do one exclusive window [with a tech company]," he said. "The rights money is going to be so big overall that they could test it over a short deal and see how it delivers."
Perlman said such a move would not only help the NFL connect with younger fans on platforms they engage with, but also could set the stage for larger streaming component down the road.
"It will embolden new bidding going forward," he said.
There are elements working against streaming, of course. First, some NFL matchups on Sunday afternoon and night can draw upward of 20 million viewers, and the league has professed concerns about whether its current streaming infrastructure can handle it.
Moreover, Chad Deweese, senior manager of the sports and strategy practice at Deloitte US Sports Practice, said there is a high expectation among NFL fans, more so than with other professional sports leagues in the U.S., that games air in a quality high-definition format. The streaming experience, with buffering and stops, can fall short of that expectation.
Another area worth watching is the role of cable. When ESPN scored its last "Monday Night Football" deal it counted some 100 million subscribers. That number has dwindled to about 84 million in the face of cord-cutting as more Americans have looked to reduce their monthly video bills.
The "delta" between the number of broadcast and cable homes is growing, Perlman said.