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Volume 22 No. 19
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Networks start setting strategy for next round of NFL rights

TV networks still are years away from starting negotiations with the NFL over the next batch of media rights. Multiple sources said the NFL’s priority is to finish a labor agreement with the NFLPA before focusing on its next media deals.

The NFL is expecting healthy increases in its media rights deals when they come up for bid in 2021 and 2022. Even when its TV ratings are down, NFL games amass television’s biggest audiences. Fox’s late Sunday afternoon package garners television’s biggest audience. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has been the most-watched prime-time series for a record eight years in a row.

The NFL now receives a combined $5.5 billion annually for its media rights from the networks.

One way to ensure that the rights fees continue to move upward is to bring more bidders to the table, which is why the NFL has sold streaming rights
to Amazon, Twitter and Yahoo in recent years. Jeff Bezos sat in Roger Goodell’s Super Bowl suite earlier this month. Facebook, Google and Twitter executives fanned out across town during the week leading up to the game.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to get a new deal with the NFLPA before shifting the focus to media rights.
Photo: getty images

Network executives certainly are wary of their deep-pocketed digital competitors. But as of now, they don’t see the NFL as being ready to put an exclusive package of games on a digital platform. The NFL, after all, steadfastly remained a broadcast-first league through cable TV’s meteoric rise.

To that end, the TV networks already are giving signs about how their negotiating strategy will look when the NFL finally comes to the table. All of the networks plan to highlight the power and reach of broadcast television, especially in contrast to the relatively small numbers that have been streaming games on digital platforms over the past several seasons.

Even cable-centric ESPN is pushing the story about the power of broadcast television. How? It is putting ABC in play. Talk to any ESPN executive and the message is clear: The network wants to be in the Super Bowl rotation with CBS, Fox and NBC. The NFL will never allow its biggest game to go exclusively to cable.

That would put ABC in the mix.

ESPN, which pays much more for its rights than the NFL’s other TV partners, also wants a stronger regular-season package. The NFL, however, views ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” package as the league’s cable package, which means it gets less competitive games than its broadcast competitors.

The way for ESPN to get a better package is to incorporate its broadcast channel. Insiders say they do not expect to see ESPN go after one of the Sunday afternoon packages. But it could consider one of the prime-time packages — Sunday or Thursday or, even, Monday night with a better schedule.

The upshot is that it looks likely that the NFL will have a lot of competition for its packages even without bringing Amazon, Facebook and Google to the negotiating table.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.