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NFL to stream games online (1 Viewer)


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NFL to stream 17 regular-season games live

Sporting News

Posted: July 25, 2008

Terry Lefton and John Ourand

SportsBusiness Journal

This story will appear Monday in SportsBusiness Journal.

The NFL will stream 17 regular-season games live this season, marking the first time regular-season action will be broadly streamed in real time in the United States.

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Starting with the NFL Kickoff game on Thursday, Sept. 4, between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, the league plans to stream NBC's prime-time schedule on NFL.com and NBCSports.com as part of a plan being engineered by NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel and Brian Rolapp, NFL senior vice president of digital media.

The online video will consist of NBC's broadcast feed, with the call by Al Michaels and John Madden. The league has not decided how to treat the ads, but the most likely scenario will strip NBC's ads out of the broadcast, with the NFL and NBC selling new online ads and sharing the revenue.

The move is significant for the NFL, as it continues to ramp up its digital offerings and open its content on more platforms. The league always has been extremely protective of its game action, doling out limited use of highlights and vigorously safeguarding the television broadcast. Two years ago the league took management of NFL.com in-house, and last year that site was the only place on the Web where users could find limited game highlights.

Now it will be interesting to see if America's most valuable television sports property, already bringing in more than $3 billion a year from its television partners, can find value on the Web without harming its lucrative TV contracts.

Similarly, NBC has been making an online push this year, particularly around the Olympics. The network plans to stream 3,000 hours of live video from Beijing on NBCOlympics.com. The broadcast network would be happy to bolster its online offerings with NFL content.

In the past few weeks, NFL Network President and CEO Steve Bornstein has told executives with CBS, Fox and ESPN about the plan, according to sources. The league's media partners contacted by SportsBusiness Journal were not happy with the plan, and more than one executive openly wondered why NBC was the only network to benefit from such live streaming.

Other network partners were equally surprised and upset by the move, not so much because they wanted to stream the games, but because they felt they deserved to be approached about the concept from the beginning.

"The NFL is changing the rules as we go," one network source said. "The right to stream games was not in any of the contracts we signed."

But NFL executives say that NBC is the best fit to stream games since it broadcasts only one per week. Fox and CBS broadcast several games per week, making a foray into live streaming more difficult.

Cable channels ESPN and NFL Network are not likely to stream live games, out of fear that they would dilute TV programming for which cable TV operators pay handsomely.

NBC almost certainly will have to fend off angry local affiliates, who are certain to worry that any live webcast will dilute TV ratings and steer viewers away from local commercial pods, especially if those local ads are stripped out of the online version.

Cable operators also are sure to voice their displeasure, arguing that the retransmission consent deals they have with NBC will be diluted if the broadcaster is allowed to take its most valuable programming online.

It was unclear whether the NFL would block cell phones with Web browsers from receiving the live action, but it seemed likely, since live games on mobile devices would impinge on Sprint's pricey NFL rights.

The NFL has experimented with limited streaming in the two years since it took its Internet offerings in-house. DirecTV streams games to a small percentage of its customers as part of Sunday Ticket's Super Fan service. Verizon offers added camera angles online for NFL Network games to its FiOS customers, and Yahoo! has streamed live games for several years on its NFLGame Pass service, which is not available in the United States. NFL Network also has made live look-ins available.

Both NBC and the NFL are looking to better integrate their TV and Web offerings, presaging a day when those rights will be sold together.

"I see no downside for either the NFL or NBC," said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports who now runs a consulting firm. "The important thing now is the survival of the network, and extensive webcasting is one of the keys to that survival." Other leagues have been more open about putting live games online, but only as part of expensive out-of-market packages. The NFL's plan will make single games available to consumers for free.

Among the major sports, MLB has been the most aggressive about streaming live games, putting its first game online in 2002. It has made full-season out-of-market streaming packages available since 2003.

The NBA and NHL also stream games online. The NBA streamed its first game in 2001 and made a full-season out-of-market package available in 2006. The NHL streamed its first game in the spring of 2007 and made a full season available for the first time later in the year, for the 2007-08 season.

Chris Russo, former NFL senior vice president of new media, said that while live games will certainly attract big audiences, the key will be in figuring out how to build incremental value from the webcast.

"Using the interactive power of the Web to enhance the game and the advertisements is what's exciting about this," said Russo, adding that he had no firsthand knowledge of the plans. "With a simultaneous webcast you could offer different camera angles, statistics, or even the ability to adopt a webcast so it highlights your best fantasy players. That's what will make this exciting and attract advertisers and fans."


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