SBJ/January 28-February 3, 2013/In Depth

Could global Game Pass wind up stateside?

The NFL has long been knocked for its failure to export its brand overseas anywhere near to the height of the sport’s popularity back home.

But while it is certainly open for debate whether international markets will deliver the revenue the league hopes, foreign lands may still soon play an important role for America’s top league: a test lab for different forms of media distribution.

“If we find out it really works internationally, that is something we could import back into the United States under the right set of circumstances,” said Eric Grubman, executive vice president of NFL ventures and business operations. “There are more and more markets in which we have laboratories.”

Grubman is particularly enthused about NFL Game Pass, an overseas-only offering for $199 annually that allows consumers to stream games to their mobile devices, tablets, laptops and PCs. Currently there are tens of thousands of subscribers, he said, disclosing for the first time a rough figure from the league for this product’s reach. He sees no reason the figure cannot soon grow to more than 1 million.

U.S. broadcast contract restrictions and the league’s Verizon sponsorship prevent a Game Pass or similar product from being offered stateside. However, it is clearly on the league’s radar, though at the moment just for growing the international marketplace.

“We could do a cousin of Game Pass overseas on YouTube, or Netflix,” Grubman said, adding he was just thinking out loud and not disclosing impending deals.

Several sports have turned to YouTube for international distribution, though the video site’s sports offerings are still limited.

The true test will come with the U.S. broadcasters that pay billions of dollars for their NFL rights. Grubman contends that the league has proved that alternate forms of distribution have not hurt broadcast ratings.

For now, though, overseas experiments will have to stay there.

“Technology is running ahead of the rights issue,” said Tom Spock, a former NFL executive, and co-founder of sports media consultancy Scalar Media Partners.

When the DirecTV deal expires in 2014, however, along with the Verizon partnership, the league could then sell out-of-market games at the least via streaming, if it so chooses that path.

Predicted former league and team executive Jim Steeg: “That day is coming.”

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