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The future is fragmented: How streaming will change NFL viewing

Jay Busbee
·5-min read

There was coincidental symmetry in the NFL announcing a new, streaming-enhanced broadcast package on the same day the NCAA men’s tournament began. Why? Because where the NCAA tournament is now, the NFL will be soon.

The early rounds of the tourney are famous (or infuriating, depending on your point of view) for the mad, nationwide scramble to figure out where the hell TruTV is. It’s a case of careful-what-you-wish-for. Yes, it’s great to have the opportunity to see every single game live if you want to, but the tradeoff is that you have to navigate through a thicket of broadcast options … and, before long, subscription streaming services.

The NFL’s new 11-year, $100 billion-with-a-B broadcast rights package is a reaffirmation of the standing order and a complete break with tradition. Yes, all your favorite stalwarts — Fox, NBC, CBS, ESPN — will continue to broadcast the most valuable property on television. Beyond that, a new player — Amazon — has entered the chat, and the role of streaming services in bringing games to you is going to only increase. “Football on your phone” was a cute gimmick when the Brothers Manning rapped it back in 2013 … but by 2030, it’s going to be the norm.

(That video still rules, though it appears DirecTV is out of the NFL market under this new deal.)

This new broadcast arrangement isn’t aimed at anyone who remembers Howard Cosell. This is meant to capture the people who know Madden only as the name of a video game franchise, not as a broadcaster or coach. The days of knowing exactly where every game will be shown, every week, are coming to a close.

The NFL would undoubtedly prefer to have all its fans watch games only on over-the-air channels. That’s where tradition lies — "Monday Night Football" on ABC/ESPN, NFC games on Fox, AFC games on CBS — but it’s also where the most money lies at the moment. Streaming services draw in only a fraction of the eyeballs (and, hence, revenue) of broadcast TV. NFL games regularly dominate ratings, both seasonally and historically. Twenty-nine of the top 30 broadcasts of all time are Super Bowls — the "M*A*S*H" finale is still hanging in there — and “Sunday Night Football” has been the top series on TV for the past 10 years running.

The NFL on TV: a brief history

In the NFL, tradition lasts only as long as it’s profitable. The league began playing football on Monday nights in the 1960s as a way to edge the NFL into competition with scripted TV. “Monday Night Football” launched in September 1970 and immediately became a broadcast institution — “appointment television” decades before that term was invented.

“MNF”’s ratings suffered in the 2000s, and the franchise moved from ABC onto ESPN to start the 2006 season. That year also marked the debut of “Thursday Night Football,” as the league expanded its weekly reach further. It’s tough to remember now, but the game’s move to ESPN was met with howls of protest from fans complaining they wouldn’t be able to watch games on cable.

Less than a decade later, the league broadcast its first game entirely on the web — a Jaguars-Bills London game streamed right here on Yahoo Sports. (It was a fascinating story; here’s an in-depth breakdown of how it all came together.) Again, the idea of watching a football game only on the phone or laptop was met with condescension, if not outright derision. Fast-forward to this year’s Super Bowl, where CBS reported that an average of 5.7 million fans per minute streamed the game, a record by a large margin.

So the future of the NFL is digital, but you already knew that. Thursday’s news made it clear, however, that for many games, the future will be only digital. Amazon acquired the exclusive rights to "Thursday Night Football," marking the league’s first all-streaming package. And tucked into the news release was the tidbit that Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, “will deliver an exclusive feed of a select number of NFL games over the course of the agreement.”

What this all means for you

What this all means for you, the consumer, is that you’re going to need to start signing up for more streaming services and remembering more passwords. Amazon, ESPN+, Paramount+, Peacock, and Tubi all will carry games, some matching the broadcast, some exclusively … and if you don’t know a Peacock from a Tubi, well, you’re going to have to figure it out.

What it also means is that the entire broadcast format of the NFL could change, perhaps slightly, perhaps dramatically. The NFL has already experimented with multiple broadcast teams on a single game. Now imagine a range of Amazon feeds with widely varying broadcasters, from former players to semi-retired broadcasting legends to Gen Z influencers to completely announcer-free booths. Imagine if the concept of a “commercial break” no longer had any meaning, since broadcasters' revenue would be coming from subscription fees. Imagine a Nickelodeon-style feed, where the game itself is only one part of the total package. Streaming opens up broadcast opportunities that network and cable can’t touch, and that’s a net benefit for fans.

Big questions loom for the NFL and its many broadcasters: how far down the streaming rabbit hole will fans chase the league? How many fans will sign up for streaming services — or, let’s be honest, borrow passwords — so they can watch a Week 7 Packers-Bears game? Will the weekly challenge of where’s-the-damn-game drive away casual fans, or will it become an endearing scavenger hunt like in the NCAA tournament?

Getting fans trained to jump from service to channel to service is a challenge for 2023 and beyond. For now, let’s see if we can figure out where the Gonzaga game is playing.

Football and your phone, made in America. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Football and your phone, made in America. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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