Three weeks ago today, the Bills and the Jaguars played a game in London. What made it unique was the NFL streamed the game over the internet using Yahoo. People around the world could watch the game on their computers and mobile devices. If you had a device like Apple TV or Roku, you could download an app and watch the game on your TV. They came up with their own Twitter hashtag #WatchWithTheWorld to commemorate a moment they called "historic."
What is amazing is they were right. The event was historic for the NFL. In the year 2015 it is kind of shocking that we could call streaming a game online historic. What it really does is highlight how difficult NFL games are to view relative to other leagues.
To access the NFL's package for out of market games , Sunday Ticket, one must subscribe to DirectTV because on an exclusivity agreement the league has with the satellite service. Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League all distribute their out of market television packages widely to cable and satellite companies.
The real divide comes in out of market streaming packages, though. The other three leagues all directly sell packages to watch out of market games over the internet. Fans can stream games on their computers, mobile devices, or even televisions if they have the proper device (again, Roku, Apple TV, etc.).
The NFL offers a streaming package on a limited basis. The only people eligible to buy are those who cannot get DirecTV service installed for a limited number of reasons, such as living in an apartment complex.
The other leagues offer their games on demand on their streaming packages. If you get home from work late at 8:00, and your team's game started at 7:00, you can start watching the game from the beginning when you get home and skip over the commercials. If you have to go out on a Friday night because it is your anniversary, you can watch the game on Saturday morning. This is not the case with the NFL's streaming service. You can only watch the action live as it is taking place.
Price is another factor. If you do qualify for the streaming service, the NFL provides you three options. You could pay $199 to just watch out of market games on laptops and mobile devices. You could pay $259 to watch games on a connected device you could hook up to your TV (Playstation, xBox, Roku). You could pay $359 to stream games anywhere. In fairness, there is also an option for college students for $100.
Major League Baseball's streaming package cost $129.99 last year and allowed users to stream games anywhere. The National Hockey League's package is at the bizarre price of $131.56 for this season. Again, users can stream games anywhere. The National Basketball Association's package is $199.99.
Keep in mind the baseball season is 162 games. The hockey and basketball seasons are both 82 games. Now also remember the extra features those packages have. One thing is clear. NFL fans are paying much higher prices for an inferior product.
The NFL also does have a fairly feeble mobile app that allows customers of Verizon only to stream games that are already being broadcast in their local area.
The NFL is not on the cutting edge with the way it delivers its games to the fans. I know the natural reply will be that the league makes a lot of money doing things this way. The networks and DirecTV handsomely reward the league to operate this way. That is true. This is because the NFL built itself into an power on the American sports landscape over the course of decades. The NFL is so popular that it would be making a ton of money no matter what broadcast partners it had.
The question I ask is how rigorously they have explored other avenues. Are they inclined to stick with their current methods just because they have worked in the past? The league was not open with how much it explored other avenues in its most recent negotiations with the networks or DirecTV.
I know we are getting into dangerous territory speculating like this, but it is striking how the NFL seems to be sticking with old methods that fly in the face of everything we know about how to maximize exposure in today's changing media climate. Broadcast networks are getting less and less of the total viewership. In an age of online streaming and services like YouTube, the Nielsen ratings they use as measuring sticks are less and less accurate. Yet the NFL has remained primarily using the traditional over the air networks to broadcast its games.
Other leagues are at the cutting edge in finding new ways to distribute their broadcasts and finding new features for fans. The NFL has shown a resistance to adopt. It took until this past season for the NFL to lift its home games blackout rule. The rule said that a game would not be broadcast in the city of the home team if the game was not sold out. The idea was fans would not go to games if it was on television. This is incredibly outdated thinking. What we know about these situations is the more games are shown, the more opportunity there is for nonfans to watch and become fans. These people eventually start going to games.
The NFL is an incredibly powerful entity. A little over two decades ago, FOX was not considered a major network. Then it won a bid to broadcast NFC games. It was a stunning development. The idea the NFL would be on "the network of Al Bundy and Bart Simpson," was widely mocked. Now FOX is a brand name in TV. The NFL helped make the network. The early days of the NFL on FOX deal was a time when a lot of people didn't have cable. There were plenty of people who got their TV from an antenna signal. The power of having the NFL led FOX to partner with local affiliates with more powerful signals to get their network distributed to a wider audience.
1994 was also the year Sunday Ticket launched on DirtecTV. It was groundbreaking at the time. Through the power of Sunday Ticket, DirecTV grew to a $48.5 billion value when it was sold to AT&T last year. The other leagues were left scrambling to create their own out of market packages.
There was plenty of skepticism at the time that these moves would be in the best interest financially of the NFL long-term. They paid off, though. It wasn't just those companies that benefited. Fans did also. You know that scoreboard that appears on the screen of every sporting event you watch? FOX created that when it first got the NFL. The network's fresh perspective created something revolutionary that made the fan experience more enjoyable. I have already discussed above the way other leagues responded to Sunday Ticket and the way they now make being an out of market fan easier than ever.
These came because the NFL was willing to take risks in the way it brought games to fans. It wasn't willing to sit back and say, "We are making a ton of money now. Let's not change anything even if we fall behind the times."
The lack of big thinking is evident in other areas.
I can think of two other major sports television packages that used the NFL regional broadcasting model to show games. One was the NCAA Tournament. In the first round, there would be four games played at a time. Game A, Game B, Game C, and Game D all used to be broadcast on CBS. Each region would get to see one of the four games. In 2011, that changed. Game A is now on CBS. Game B is on TNT. Game C is on TBS. Game D is on TruTV. Fans can choose whatever game they want.
The Canadian NHL television package Hockey Night in Canada operated the same way. Hockey Night in Canada is a Saturday night NHL telecast. In many ways, it is Canada's version of Sunday Night Football. In the past, there might be three games happening at the same time. Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, all might have games. The way it used to be was fans would see one game on the CBC network. Last year that changed. Toronto might be on CBC. Montreal might be on the CityTV network. Ottawa might be on Sportsnet.
With the NFL, fans are stuck getting three regional games each Sunday afternoon.
The NFL's lack of imagination carries into its broadcasts also. Part of this has to do with its extreme reliance on traditional over the air networks like CBS. These networks are not built to take chances. Their success is built on appealing to as broad of an audience as possible, which frequently means no risks as to not offend anybody. Sports are increasingly moving their broadcasts away from over the air networks. Cable channels are built more for specific niches. They have to innovate and take chances to break through and gain attention.
The last two years, the aforementioned NCAA Tournament has seen National Semifinal broadcasts on TBS. The cable network has utilized partner networks TBS and TruTV to provide customized broadcasts tailored to the fans of both teams playing in a given game, providing an option other than the down the middle TBS broadcast.
The last two years, ESPN has done something special with its College Football National Championship coverage. They called it the Megacast. Again, they utilized all of their networks to provide customized coverage while leaving the traditional broadcast on ESPN. Some of the concepts were kind of silly. Who would want to watch Barry Melrose and Aaron Boone talk about college football on ESPN U? Some of them were really interesting, though. A bunch of real coaches were breaking down what was happening using the all 22 film in real time on ESPN 2? A focus on off the ball action on ESPNews? Some of these concepts are useless. Others really wouldn't be practical for anything other than a big game when the network can dedicate extra resources. One or two concepts might end up becoming part of mainstream broadcasting, though, and increasing the fan experience.
This isn't to say the NFL needs to adopt everything I discussed above. It is only to say the league has lost its pioneering spirit in the way it shows fans its games. I am hoping the Buffalo-Jacksonville experiment will be the first step on the way to changing things because the league is being lapped by the field.