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Published March 23, 2009
Turns out the NFL’s much-discussed 2006 move to bring its digital operations in-house was only a prelude for the flurry of experiments to come.
Following that move, a relaunch of NFL.com and a subsequent debate over video limitations on outside media outlets filming from team facilities, Brian Rolapp, NFL vice president of media strategy, helped engineer a sweeping series of digital initiatives for the league.
Among them were a deal with NBC to simulcast the network’s Sunday night games live, a major step for such a TV-centric league as the NFL and a pact that later involved Yahoo! Sports; the debut of NFL Game Rewind, an online game replay service sold via subscription; and the implementation of the league’s secondary ticketing deal with Ticketmaster.
Further steps included the establishment of an official league presence on social-networking hub Facebook, and enlargements to offseason online coverage around the combine and draft to burnish the notion of the NFL as a year-round entity.
“The first stages were about defining our rights and going through all the work to relaunch them in-house,” Rolapp said. “Now we’re to a stage where we can conduct some really interesting tests, leverage the power of all our assets like the network, like NFL Films, have a direct relationship with our fans, and go after some larger learnings.”
Also among those experiments was a series of moves revolving around the eight Thursday night games aired on the NFL Network, such as live streaming of those contests both online and to Sprint phones as part of an exclusive deal with the mobile carrier. While those games have additionally been the center of a nasty carriage dispute between the league and several large cable operators, Rolapp sees the package as a “lab rat” for the league.
The ultimate endgame for all of Rolapp’s moves is to prepare the league for the next round of TV rights negotiations. The current pacts begin to expire in 2011, and it’s inevitable that TV networks will be seeking additional digital rights for the next set of contracts. How much of those rights the league includes, and what it will charge for them, is yet to be determined.
“We’re building a database about what our customers want and how they consume content, and it’s going to be put in a stronger position for the next round of talks,” Rolapp said. “Fans’ appetites are only increasing. Our reach and engagement measures continue to grow, and not at the expense of television. So my task is to help Steve [Bornstein, NFL executive vice president of media] make sense of all of that and prepare us to move forward.”
Rolapp continues to win plaudits for calmly and deftly navigating the ambitious and sometimes-conflicting sets of agendas between senior league executives, team owners and media and corporate partners.
“Brian’s very idea-oriented and forward-looking, but at the same time very deliberate. He effectively blends a sense of innovation and deliberation,” said Perkins Miller, NBC Sports & Olympics senior vice president of digital media. “He’s done a great job striking the balance in deals in ways where both the NFL and the brands of his partners are boosted and well-positioned. That takes a great deal of diligence, and he’s been a great partner.”