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Volume 23 No. 18
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A programming powerhouse

“Sunday Night Football” has been the highest-rated prime-time series for a record eight consecutive years.
Photo: getty images
“Sunday Night Football” has been the highest-rated prime-time series for a record eight consecutive years.
Photo: getty images
“Sunday Night Football” has been the highest-rated prime-time series for a record eight consecutive years.
Photo: getty images

The NFL has streamed its games on Amazon, Twitch, Twitter and Yahoo. The league owns its own cable channel and operates a multimedia website. NFL programming is a staple on every platform that carries video.

“If Pete Rozelle came back today and could see what was here, he would see traces of his thinking in this and that,” said NFL COO Brian Rolapp, referring to the NFL’s commissioner from 1960 to 1989.

That’s because while the NFL has spent decades cutting deals to pursue different media platforms, it has saved most of its media rights for broadcast television. It’s why most of the NFL’s packages have stayed on broadcast even when there was more money in cable TV through the 1990s and 2000s. It’s why the league’s cable and streaming packages have always mandated that games will be available on broadcast channels locally.

“If you distill down our strategy in 2019, it’s the same strategy, which is you need to reach as many people as you can,” Rolapp said. “Now, that’s more complicated because of all the changes in technology. Everything we’ve done has been about reach and trying to get to as many people as we can in a smart way to keep the sport a national sport.”

NFL games have become the most powerful programming on television. The late Sunday afternoon windows on CBS and Fox bring the biggest TV audiences of the week. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has been the highest-rated prime-time series for a record eight consecutive years. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is the highest-rated series on cable TV.

Many broadcast executives — and virtually all league executives — credit the NFL with popularizing ESPN, which started carrying games in 1987, and Fox, which started carrying games in 1994.

“It’s great that Fox is young enough that there are still so many people here that realize what getting the NFL meant to Fox,” said Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks. “There was a day, pre-NFL rights, that Fox Sports didn’t exist and the day that we got the NFL rights, Fox Sports existed. Fox Sports was literally born to do football.”

In 2018, Shanks bought “Thursday Night Football” rights from the NFL, which reminded him of the broadcast network’s growth strategy in 1994, also centered on getting NFL rights.

“I think it has a lot of similarities to 25 years ago when Fox was becoming the fourth broadcast network,” Shanks said.

Rolapp also points to “Thursday Night Football” as the perfect example of the NFL’s media strategy. It emphasizes reach through its deal with Fox, the broadcast network. It emphasizes experimentation through its deals with Amazon and Twitch. And it emphasizes its own media platforms by simulcasting its games on NFL Network.

“Our Thursday package is a good example of reach, but just in a different way,” Rolapp said. “Thursday’s always for us been a little bit of our experimental capital. It’s been a package we’ve used to kind of forge new models, to get smarter and to move our media strategy along. Right now, because you can get it on Fox, and the NFL Network, and on Amazon, we have cobbled together reach that makes sense in 2019. It’s the same strategy, it just looks differently. I think that’s really what has helped us. A great sport that’s got built-in scarcity value, that has a media strategy that is built on reach.”

Broadcasters that lose NFL rights historically have been aggressive in trying to get them back. CBS lost its Sunday afternoon rights to Fox in 1994 but got them back in 1998. NBC lost its rights in 1998 but got them back in 2006. Sources say that ABC, which lost rights in 2006, is being aggressive to try to win back rights to a prime-time package when those rights come up in 2022.

“Everyone who’s been out has cycled back in,” Rolapp said. “It’s not great being the odd man out. It’s such a popular sport, it gets so many viewers, and we’ve been able to create packages that give them all their own swim lanes. They all feel like they have their own thing to sell.”

The big question is whether a digital media company like Amazon is ready to step up for an exclusive package — and whether the NFL is ready to trust one of its packages to a company that will stream the games.

Rolapp would not comment on current negotiations. But he pointed to the 1980s when the NFL sold a half-season package of games to ESPN, which was in a fraction of the number of homes of the broadcast networks at the time. “That was about seeding a new platform and growing a platform potentially that could be pretty big,” he said. “That half-season package then turned into a full package.”

From a broadcast’s perspective, Shanks said NFL rights have become more valuable to Fox in 2019 than they were for Fox in 1994.

“It’s the perfect sport at the perfect time of the year,” Shanks said. “From a scheduling perspective, the scarcity matters — each team only plays 16 games. The time of the year matters, when people get their lives back into an organized routine. Over the years, the management at the NFL has been able to grow the game and embrace new ways for fans to express their passion for the game.”

That includes embracing broadcast television and turning the Super Bowl into a de facto national holiday, Shanks said. But it also means experimenting with new platforms and new ways to reach fans.

“The NFL has done a good job embracing new things like fantasy and, now, being able to navigate things like sports wagering,” Shanks said. “NFL fans, even now, have new ways to become more invested in their fanhood.”

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