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Steve McCaskill | Three takeaways from Google’s NFL Sunday Ticket streaming deal

SportsPro's technology editor examines the fallout from the NFL's latest broadcast deal and what it means for all involved.

9 January 2023 Steve McCaskill

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The thing about being a huge sports fan and working in the sports industry, especially in a role that covers broadcasting, is that there is a lot of overlap. My end-of-year break is as much about watching sport on the sofa as it is about spending time with friends and family, or overindulging with food and drink (although I do all three simultaneously).

Darts dominates my house in December and during one session of the PDC World Darts Championship I reached for my phone to share my inane thoughts about a match on Twitter, only to see that the story I’d been following all year had reached its conclusion on my day off. Google had beaten Apple and any other number of tech giants to the post for the National Football League’s (NFL) Sunday Ticket package of out-of-market games.

My attention eventually returned to the events at London’s Alexandra Palace and to my Christmas break but for the first SportsPro OTT newsletter of 2023, it seems appropriate to reflect on the longest running sports media story of 2022 and predict what happens next. 

1. It’s good news for Google… and consumers

Despite an increasingly fragmented sports media landscape, NFL fans in the US are still well-catered for by national networks. Three live games are available each Sunday on CBS, FOX and NBC, while ESPN is included in many basic packages for Monday Night Football, and Amazon’s Thursday Night Football is available with a Prime Video subscription. Yes, there are some costs involved but it is far simpler than the complex arrangement of free-to-air (FTA), cable, regional sports network (RSN), and streaming services employed by Major League Baseball (MLB), for example.

Given Sunday Ticket was only previously available with DirecTV’s satellite television service, any migration to a streaming platform was always going to improve availability. YouTube TV is arguably the most widely available of all the platforms that were in contention for Sunday Ticket and is able to bundle in linear channels, meaning consumers can get everything except Thursday Night Football in one place.

A study in October found that YouTube TV was the most popular (35 per cent) destination for Sunday Ticket among viewers. This compared to the 29 per cent who wanted it on Amazon, the 20 per cent who preferred ESPN+, and the 16 per cent who favoured Apple TV+.

Consumers will still have to pay a premium for Sunday Ticket but they’ll be able to watch nearly every single NFL game via a single service. It might just encourage more viewers to cut the cord, and give YouTube TV an advantage over rivals like Hulu and FuboTV. And if they’re not ready? It’s available as a standalone subscription. It’s a win-win for everyone.

2. The NFL revenue train shows no signs of stopping

The NFL is in a league of its own when it comes to television revenue. Having already secured US$110 billion over the next decade, the deal with Google is believed to be worth US$2 billion annually for the next seven years. It’s a huge figure that gives the NFL a great deal of certainty moving forward.

But if you believe what you read then it’s not content with stopping there. Partly because of a lack of options, the NFL has bundled its domestic mobile streaming rights into the NFL+ app and it remains to be seen what can be done with its reserved rights moving forward.

One area of growth could be augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR). The Athletic notes that one of the reasons that negotiations with Apple broke down was because the company wanted the rights to future technologies (one of my educated predictions for 2023 was that this might be the year that Apple’s much-rumoured smart glasses make an appearance).

Seven years is a long time in technology and the NFL was reportedly unwilling to dish out open-ended rights that might be worth more in just two years’ time – either as part of the NFL+ app or via a third party. Once the technology catches up, fans might be able to watch games from any seat in the stadium or even from a first-person perspective. The NFL Pro Era video game on the Meta Quest 2 headset offers a glimpse of what’s possible and a whole new category could push that headline US$124 billion figure even higher.

3. Apple’s next move is unclear

Apple was thought to be the frontrunner for Sunday Ticket. The NFL was supposed to be the catalyst for its streaming ambitions – the deal that announced it as a major player in the sports broadcasting market. Having secured MLB rights and a US$2.5 billion global deal with Major League Soccer (MLS), the NFL was the logical next step.

The problem was that the NFL and Apple are both used to calling the shots. Apple reportedly wanted flexibility that the league was either unwilling to offer, such as on the issue of future tech rights, or unable to do because of its contracts with other broadcasters.

Sport is clearly on Apple’s agenda but where does it go from here? National Hockey League (NHL) commissioner Gary Bettman is excited about the additional competition, but its rights are owned by Turner Sports and ESPN until 2028, while Apple has also missed out on Big Ten college football. The answer could be the National Basketball Association (NBA), which will be the last big US property on the market for some time and is believed to be keen on a streaming partner.

The combination of the NBA and MLS would mean two forward-thinking leagues with digitally native, youthful fanbases on a single platform.

Premier League follows NFL with children’s broadcast

Speaking of Christmas, this year saw three NFL games broadcast on the big day itself, including a special Nickelodeon ‘NFL Nickmas Game’. The children’s channel has offered a special simulcast of CBS’s coverage twice before, winning acclaim for its youth-focused presentation, appearances from Spongebob Squarepants, and generous slime effects for touchdowns

The trend is catching on. Earlier this week, Sky Sports produced a ‘Premier League Juniors’ broadcast for Brentford v Liverpool, offering four young fans the opportunity to conduct pre-match interviews, present coverage, and commentate on the match itself.

It lacked the gimmicks (and slime) of Nickelodeon’s coverage, but with many sports looking for ways to attract younger viewers there are far worse ideas than tailoring the presentation and getting involved.

British Sign Language commentary is a game changer

Any barrier to participation or spectatorship in sport is one barrier too many, and the industry should be applauded for the progress made so far. But there is still a long way to go, as demonstrated by the fact that kit clashes that make it difficult for colourblind people to distinguish between two teams are still happening.

BT Sport has launched a new ‘Sign Up’ initiative to enhance its coverage for viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is creating content that promotes the use of British Sign Language (BSL) and is even searching for a duo to provide BSL commentary for a range of programming in 2023, including the Uefa Champions League final.

Many television programmes in the UK are signed, and the advent of streaming platforms means viewers can access these versions at a time that suits them – and not in the middle of the night as was the case in a pre-internet world. But BSL sports commentary is a game changer for underserved fan groups.

Simulcasts featuring slime and the Manning brothers have their value but here is an example of a broadcast initiative that can serve an audience like never before.

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