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NFL boldly going where it hasn't gone before with webcast-only game

No U.S. professional sports organization has been more adept at finding money from its broadcast partners than the NFL, and now the league will boldly go where it has never gone before for a regular season broadcast: the Internet. 

No U.S. professional sports organization has been more adept at finding money from its broadcast partners than the NFL, and now the league will boldly go where it has never gone before for a regular season broadcast: the Internet. 

The NFL will live-stream next season's game between the Bills and Jaguars on Oct. 25 via webcast only. It marks the first time the league will use a distributor other than television or radio for a national game. The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news on Monday, said the league is currently seeking a digital distributor (e.g. YouTube, Facebook). The game will not be available on DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket service, but will be broadcast locally on over-the-air networks in the home markets of Jacksonville and Buffalo, meaning viewers should expect a low-level CBS or Fox broadcast team to handle the production. The Bills-Jaguars will kickoff at 9:30 a.m. ET from London’s Wembley Stadium.

“This is a good opportunity to experiment,” said NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy, in an email. “We will evaluate fan reaction and gather feedback and then determine if we would offer additional games like this in the future.”

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It would be shocking if this isn’t the beginning of an annual package (even limited) of regular season games available only via the web. “Most of the NFL games are tied up in long-term rights deals so although it’s a test pattern, it’s a really important one that can’t be understated,” said Jason Kint, the CEO of Digital Content Next and a former CBS Sports executive. “As with any content company, the NFL wants to have the largest marketplace available to compete for its product. The NFL is certainly making a statement that a digital-only model with the likes of a Google, Facebook, Xbox or maybe even ESPN, CBS All Access or any other OTT (over-the-top) international distributor is on the table.  It completely opens up and ironically simplifies the rights for this game. 

“The execution then becomes critical. The latency, video quality, ease in watching and engagement with the game are all critical. The simple fact with live sports is that so far when there is a TV available, it’s a much better experience on the biggest and most stable screen available rather than watching purely on a digital platform let alone mobile.”

Kint makes an excellent point about execution. Given its promotional might, the NFL will market the game enough to get a lot of digital curiosity seekers. So the quality of the experience will be critical. Kint suggested doing something unique during the broadcast that prompted viewer engagement. (Perhaps the NFL could create a one-off fantasy competition just for the game with real-time scoring and a big cash prize.)

Hans Schroeder, the NFL senior vice president of media strategy, business development and sales, told Sports Business Daily in February that the league believed the London game could serve as a test for long-term findings.

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“That 9:30 a.m. time slot is interesting internationally when you start to think of parts of Asia, where it reaches into Sunday night, as well as parts of Europe,” Schroeder said. “The one-off, over-the-top game is more of a test to see if digital companies can handle the large audiences that watch NFL games. We really want to figure out if the landscape is ready for digital-only distribution of a game. A lot of this is trying to anticipate, as the world changes, who our partners are going to be and who may be interested in NFL game rights when we look seven or eight years down the road, or potentially earlier, with Thursday Night Football. Is there nontraditional media who would be interested in those games?”

Expect the answer to be 'yes.' At the moment, NFL content is king and digital-only players will be watching this experiment closely.

THE NOISE REPORT examines the week’s biggest sports media stories.

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1. On Monday, the NFL announced its owners had approved a one-year suspension of the local blackout policy for the 2015 preseason and regular season games. The league said it will evaluate the impact of the suspension after the season. The proposal to suspend the policy came from the league’s Finance and Broadcast committees. The Bengalswere the lone team to vote against the suspension.

It’s a long overdue change for a policy that began in 1973 as a way to encourage fans to buy tickets to games rather than watch them free on television. As noted by the New York Times, the decision comes after the Federal Communications Commission in September repealed its sport blackout rules, which prohibited cable and satellite operators from importing the signal of a game when it was blacked out locally. The league said the order eliminated FCC reinforcement of the league’s blackout policy, but it did not affect the league’s ability to maintain and enforce the blackout policy through contractual arrangements with programming distributors.

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The blackout policy mandated that a game must be blacked out on local TV markets in the event that fewer than 85% of available seats have been sold 72 hours prior to kickoff. That deadline could be extended if a team believed it was close to selling out the game. In reality, it was only impacting a few markets and it was unfair to those fans, especially in cold weather cities. The league said on Monday that there were no regular season blackouts last season and only two in 2013.

1a. The Browns are the frontrunners for the next edition of HBO’s Hard Knocks, according to Buffalo News NFL columnist Vic Carucci. 

2. MLB Network debuts its first-ever regular season morning show, MLB Central, on April 6 at 10:00 a.m. The show will be hosted by Matt Vasgersian, Mark DeRosa and Lauren Shehadi. The network said among the elements will be “The Wake-Up Call,” a look at the biggest highlights and news stories in the game, and recurring features and interviews with MLB players, managers and others inside the clubhouse. Given the competitive nature of morning television, especially in the sports space, it’s going to be tough for MLB Network to find a large audience here.

3. Showtime will premiere “Dean Smith” on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The one-hour doc on the late North Carolina men’s basketball coach features interviews with former players, coaches, rivals and friends. Michael Jordan and Mike Krzyzewski were among the subjects interviewed.

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4.Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand reports that ESPN management has had discussions with Colin Cowherd to increase his television presence. Given the love management and PR have for Cowherd, he has become one of the most powerful on-air forces in Bristol.

5. The NBA and Univision Deportes are partnering up on programming including two weekly, Spanish-language NBA shows, one for UniMas and one for Univision Deportes.

5a. The Premier Boxing Champions series continues to expand its footprint. Last week ESPN announced a multi-year agreement with the Al Heymon-run company. The agreement calls for 12 two-hour annual live PBC telecasts on both ESPN and ABC. This essentially replaces Friday Night Fights, which will end its will run on May 22 with the finals of the Boxcino 2015 tournament. The PBC on ESPN telecasts will be produced by ESPN with Joe Tessitore calling the bouts and Teddy Atlas working as the analyst.

5b. The Tuesday episode of Real Sports (10:00 p.m. ET/PT) will focus on the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes. The show will include a Bryant Gumbel-led panel with former Oregon State men’s basketball coach Craig Robinson; New York Times journalist Joe Nocera; Kirk Schultz, the president of Kansas State and Chair of the Board of Governors, and Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Kain Colter.

5c. My Monday column featured a long Q&A with WWE announcer Michael Cole on what goes on behind the scenes for professional wrestling broadcasters, plus the top-rated cities for the NCAA tournament, some thoughts on the first week of the tournament, and SportsCenter anchor Jaymee Sire on why she blogs about food away from her day job.