NFL's Streaming-Focused TV Deals Will Break the Bundle

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Did the NFL Just Break the Bundle With Streaming-First Deals?

For the first time, fans largely will be able to watch the majority of NFL games without a TV subscription

The NFL is breaking free from the bundle. The league’s new TV deals, which put streaming at the forefront, are set to massively transform how sports are distributed and strip the old TV model of one of its remaining pillars.

The league is betting massively on streaming potentially overtaking linear TV as the main way fans will watch televised games. As part of its new 11-year deal, “Thursday Night Football” will stream exclusively on Amazon starting in 2023, becoming the biggest sports TV package of any kind to bet on streaming. It didn’t come cheap either, as Amazon will pay around $1 billion over a 10-year span, an individual with knowledge of the deal told TheWrap.

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“Amazon committing to 10-year term has not happened before,” Pat Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive who works as a consultant, told TheWrap. Crakes in the past wasn’t sure if Amazon was committed enough to be more than a bit player with the NFL. “That’s a level of commitment they haven’t shown to any effort in sports media to date. So, they’ve moved down the road some there. Also, keep in mind every game with Amazon will be on broadcast in home markets.”

Amazon will stream 15 games a year and, unlike the last few years when it just simulcast Fox’s broadcast, will have to produce those games itself. The games will still be available on broadcast stations in the participating teams’ home markets.

In addition to Amazon’s billion-dollar play, fellow streaming services ESPN+ and Peacock will get rights to NFL games. While it was widely expected the two would be simulcasting “Monday Night Football” and “Sunday Night Football,” which will still be carried by linear TV, each will have their own exclusive games each season.

Including Paramount+, which features live local feeds of its consumers’ CBS stations, football fans will be able to watch just about every NFL game without having to subscribe to a traditional TV package.

“It’s validation of a multi-decade long strategy by the league to consistently find ways to add partners and platforms in ways that build value in incremental ways in conjunction with established partners,” Crakes said. “This deal validates the existing strategic importance of established platforms and partners while embracing new forms of distribution.”

Even as TV ratings declined to record lows during 2020 — and with people stuck at home during the pandemic — live sports continued to command the greatest share of overall TV viewing. In fact, as the linear TV industry continues to suffer a massive erosion of viewers, TV sports has never been more important.

But that importance is losing, well, it’s importance. Increasingly, younger consumers are shunning pay-TV packages — forcing sports leagues like the NFL to meet them on their terms after years of demanding the opposite.

The NFL’s deals follow ESPN’s reunion with the NHL last week, which will put the majority of its newfound hockey games on ESPN+, while saving the bigger events for linear TV. And that might be how sports viewing looks for the foreseeable future: Most of the games available on streaming, while the big events get the broadcast or cable TV distribution. Despite the heavy losses, pay-TV still counts more than 70 million subscribing homes.

More than most other forms of content, live sports is caught between the old and new media models. Over the next handful of years, it’s a tightrope that leagues and their rights-holders will have to walk. By making more content available on streaming to those without a TV subscription, they risk accelerating the demise of the old model.

Though Disney, ViacomCBS and Comcast all have streaming platforms, they also have broadcast stations to keep happy — and profitable. It’s one thing for the local stations in major markets like Los Angeles and New York, which are owned by the conglomerates; what about the local affiliates in Omaha or Oklahoma City, which are owned by separate station groups? Sinclair or Nexstar has no vested interest in propping up Peacock, nor do distributors like Charter or AT&T.

But the NFL on Thursday admitted what many have already known: The future is here, and it will be streamed.

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and the chairman of the NFL Media committee, said during a media conference call after the deal that they “understand streaming is truly the future.” Kraft added these new deals provide “a smooth, consumer-friendly transition to what we all know will be the future form of content distribution.”

Tim Baysinger

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