With the start of the NFL regular season, television gets back its biggest audience. But don’t expect to see any live games online, without having to pay for cable or satellite, anytime soon.
Even as traditional television adapts to the Internet, the NFL doesn’t feel the rush. They don’t have to: their biggest audience is on broadcast, cable and satellite TV, and they are making around $9 billion each year to license the rights to broadcast their games. That figure could reach $25 billion by 2027, predicts NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The league has contracts with cable and broadcasters, worth billions of dollars, that will last the next seven years.
Still, NFL executives are trying to figure out how to grow their digital business.They’ve made trips to Silicon Valley where they’ve met with Google chief executive Larry Page and other industry executives. Some tech execs have expressed interest in partnerships to bring games online direct to consumers, similar to Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV.
But before that happens, a lot of pieces need to fall into place, the league says. Executives say the technology has be improve so that viewers aren’t stuck with buffering in the middle of a major play. There needs to be better measures to stop illegal online streams. And more people need to be on the Internet with faster broadband speeds at home.
We talked to the head of the NFL’s digital committee, Jonathan Kraft — who is also president of the New England Patriots — earlier this summer. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In several years, will I still be watching NFL games through broadcast and cable TV?
A: When we look seven years down the road, the whole landscape will be different. Obviously it’s safe to assume that what has traditionally been done will change. When this next round of television contracts expire, the landscape will be so different, not just in terms of potential acquirers, but with long-term partners who could very well be distributing network programming in new and different ways too.
But that said, NFL games are different than other content. There are few things like NFL games that so many people know is taking place at a certain time and that they schedule their lives around. So being in front of a primarily large flat screen TV in a traditional TV setting may be trending down a little, but the vast majority of people who watch live game windows still do it that way.
Q: So no live online games for a while. What can we expect with the NFL at all on the Internet?
A: Whether in a stadium, or in a sports bar, or at home with friends and family, the power of our games are not just the quality of what takes place on the field. You’ll see more second-screen experience. And while live game windows are one thing, there’s also league-produced content that the NFL Network and NFL Films are doing specifically for all forms of digital media. Then there is what the clubs are doing. And then there is fantasy football. There is a lot of activity around NFL that is outside the game windows.
Q: Is there a risk that the NFL could be left behind?
A: We are lucky. We don’t have to be revolutionary in what we are doing. We can be evolutionary and watch as the market evolves. The NFL ties the country together. No other sport does that. Here a few stats: A regular season NFL game has about 18 million viewers. The average NBA game is 1.2 million. The average MLB is 0.9 million. The average NHL is 0.4 million. The Super Bowl last year had 161 million viewers. If you take the deciding game of the NBA finals — game 7 — the deciding game of the World Series, together they didn’t have close to the number of viewers of the Super Bowl.
Q: It feels like professional football has become a year-round entertainment industry. What’s the plan for the off-season?
A: Where each game window is important in a very short season, the mass market interest is huge. People from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds are interested. I know people who play father-daughter fantasy league. Where else do fathers and daughters bond on a professional sport?
During the off-season, we have these unique tent poles, the foundation pieces to the upcoming season. Free agency starts in March. Then the draft at end of April and beginning of May. And then we have what we call OTAs, organized team activities, where all players start to practice and get ready to move to training camp in July.
Q: How have you worked with Silicon Valley companies on your distribution of content and games?
A: We’ve made trips to the Valley. The Commissioner has been a huge advocate of these meetings and understanding the transformation of technology and how this space is moving quickly.
Last year, on our last trip out there, everything we heard confirmed for us that the concept of the app NFL Now – a curated experience that was different by device and for individuals – was the right way to think about it.
Q: When did you start having these meeting with Silicon Valley companies and what do you talk about?
A: The first trip was in March ’07. Copyright and piracy was a big point of discussion. We talked about the issues around it in our live content. We had very positive discussion about how this is something that you have to have the ability to monitor and protect.