Since DVR, streaming devices and cord-cutting have collectively turned television on its head, there has been one final television frontier to hold firm. Live sports have survived as the last, truly DVR-proof event, the consistent must-watch-live-on-actual-television content that you can’t really get anywhere else.
But on Wednesday, the National Football League, it of the increasingly worldwide footprint and profits now in the billions, announced that it had accepted Yahoo’s bid for exclusive streaming rights to its October 25 game between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars (interestingly, one of the league’s handful of games to played this season in London, UK). While the game will be on broadcast television in those two local markets, that’s it; everyone else around the globe will have to watch live on Yahoo! platforms, for free.
It wasn’t free for Yahoo!, who outbid Google, Apple, and Amazon for the rights to the tune of allegedly eight figures. While this is certainly an experiment for the NFL, what Yahoo! is able to do from an advertising perspective also bears watching. Without any true precedent, how much the time is worth versus that of a standard NFL television broadcast remains a question. There are some quirks to this game; the London location and, thus, the 9:30 AM Eastern/6:30 AM Pacific start time may certainly mean that a 30-second spot during this game will be less than that of a similar spot on television. But, if the stream does well from an advertising perspective (and, it would follow, if Yahoo! gets a good return on its mammoth investment) the incentive for other digital media companies to bid on exclusive sports broadcast rights will be there the next time this type of opportunity rolls around.
This isn’t the first time that live sports have been streamed. In the US, every match from the 2014 FIFA World Cup was available to be streamed online or on the ESPN network’s apps on mobile devices. The same can be said for the past few iterations of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships, and NBC Sports Live Extra streams its sports broadcasts of the NHL, Premier League, tennis and Formula-1. The difference here is that all those events were streamed in conjunction with a television broadcast. The NFL-Yahoo! deal represents the first time in the U.S. that a high-profile sporting event will solely be available online.
We’re still a long way off from major live sports making the full transition to digital live-streaming. All the major sports leagues in the United States (the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) are currently locked into fairly long-term, lucrative rights deals with major television networks. Mark Cuban, owner of both the Dallas Mavericks of the NBA and the television network AXS TV still believes firmly in the power of television. “Television is an undervalued medium,” Cuban said back in 2012 at the Produced By Conference. Cuban believes that live TV still holds a pull over digital video because of its ease as a tool against boredom. Cuban might be right, but there’s no doubt that younger generations are watching plenty of video online and on their mobile devices, even if it takes a little bit of effort to find the content they want. Wednesday’s deal will certainly put Cuban’s theory to the test.
While Cuban may think traditional television isn’t going anywhere, let’s not pretend that this singular NFL game isn’t a big deal. It is. The NFL is the king of the American sports landscape, and what it does, others follow. These one-off, experimental-type events will likely begin happening more often now, across other sports and events, with the other big digital companies getting into the act. If they have proven success to fall back on, the Googles and Apples will likely be big players the next time the NFL or other leagues’ broadcast rights deals are on the open market.
The NFL-Yahoo! development is the latest in a long line of disruptions to the television landscape. On the same day as the NFL news broke, Showtime announced that they were matching their premium cable brethren HBO in offering a digital, standalone over-the-top streaming service, without need for a subscription to the television network. When it comes to sports, live-streaming has been a valuable tool for American consumers of soccer, who have long had to cut out of work to watch UEFA Champions League matches that take place in the middle of their work day. More recently, fans who didn’t want to pay the exorbitant $100 pay-per-view fee to watch the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Manny Pacquiao found that they had an alternative: Periscope. Modern day Robin Hoods generously used their phones to “broadcast” their television screens to followers on social media; the followers who watched for free ended up being the winners of the night, spared from having to spend hard-earned money on an event that failed to live up to its massive billing.
And finally, while a Jaguars-Bills game in October isn’t exactly the Super Bowl, many eyes will likely be fixated on the types of ads we see during the game. Which brands will—and in turn, won’t—see this as a great opportunity to claim a stake as one who will be ready for when the all-digital transformation takes place? Aside from the who, the what might be just as interesting. Video content experts have preached that what works on television doesn’t necessarily work on digital; will brands simply recycle their television ads for the small screen, or will the content have a discernable look and feel?
Much surrounding this first-ever major American streaming-only sports broadcast will be trial and error; for the league, for Yahoo!, for the advertisers, and for the viewers. But all involved will have to see what works and move forward with it, because sports-on-streaming is about to become the norm.