Football fans who want to watch National Football League games online are about to catch a big break. Starting next year, they'll be able to watch virtually all live games, including the upcoming playoffs, on the Web — no matter which Internet provider or wireless carrier you have.
The news was announced Monday by Verizon as it sealed a deal with the NFL for an estimated $2 billion over the next five years. The move highlights the telecom giant's pivot toward digital media and online advertising amid massive changes in the TV and Internet industries.
Monday's deal makes it possible for Verizon to hook customers of even rival Internet providers with must-see content hosted on websites that Verizon owns — such as AOL, Yahoo, Yahoo Sports and go90, the telecom giant's proprietary online video app.
The agreement between Verizon and the NFL will let football fans stream their local teams' games, as well as nationally televised games and league highlights. Games that air on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays are covered under the deal. Even the Super Bowl will be widely streamed to anyone with an Internet connection, Verizon said.
Before the deal, watching NFL games online could be difficult. Internet audiences were limited to viewing games on select days of the week — as in the case of “Thursday Night Football,” which was streamed exclusively on Twitter in 2016 and then on Amazon a year later. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) Or football fans could become customers of Verizon, which enjoyed the broadest freedom to cast games online but whose rights did not extend to customers of AT&T or other carriers and home Internet providers.
The focus on mobile and highly trafficked websites underscores how Verizon is trying to build a broad-based entertainment empire, aiming to match traditional distributors of sports programming as well as advertising titans such as Google and Facebook.
“Wireless carriers and the growing variety of pay-TV providers all want the same access for their customers,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent media and technology analyst. “This is setting up a growing war, a battle between providers.”
Live sports continues to be one of the few attractions propping up the cable bundle — the legacy product that such companies as Comcast and Spectrum depend on for revenue. As more Americans have shifted to streaming alternatives, the business model supporting the traditional bundle has buckled, and many consumers say that live sports is the only thing keeping them tied to their cable subscriptions.
By making professional football games widely accessible online for the first time, Verizon may be beginning to chip away at that argument for keeping cable. The NFL is the country's biggest professional sports league, raking in $14 billion in the 2016 season. Other professional leagues, such as Major League Baseball, have taken steps to expand the online streaming of their games.
But football is still just a slice of the overall market for live sports, meaning that there's a whole wide world of sports rights for Internet providers, tech giants and cable companies still to fight over.