Think of Sunday’s online-only Bills–Jaguars game less as a one-off novelty than an inevitable next step in the NFL’s quest to expand its brand.
If you broadcast it, they will come.
The message may not be as blue-collar as the one James Earl Jones championed in Field of Dreams, but it is perhaps just as rooted in Americana. The NFL will put it to the test Sunday morning when it airs the Bills–Jaguars game from London, at 9:30 a.m. ET, streamed almost exclusively through Yahoo! Sports. (The Buffalo and Jacksonville markets will receive the game via CBS.)
“As an industry, one of the interesting things in partnering with the NFL is that we see it has historically been one of the leaders in these platform shifts,” Adam Cahan, Yahoo!’s senior vice president of video, design and emerging offerings, told SI this week. “Whether it was from broadcast to cable, cable to satellite and now satellite to digital, that audience really does follow them.
“Historically, that was a big opportunity for us to participate in.”
Think of this less as a one-off novelty than an inevitable next step in the NFL’s quest to expand its brand. All of last year’s playoff games were streamed online, in conjunction with their televised broadcasts. CBS employed the same strategy for its Oct. 4 coverage of the Dolphins–Jets game from Wembley Stadium and will do the same for the Panthers–Cowboys matchup on Thanksgiving Day. FOX is streaming 101 games this season on its FOX Sports Go app, though viewers cannot access out-of-market content.
Of course, there also is the DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket package, which allows viewers within the United States to watch any game. Those outside the U.S. have the same option through the league’s Game Pass feature. The U.S. version of Game Pass also provides access to all games, though not until after the live broadcasts end.
Yahoo!’s Sunday broadcast, though, will mark the first time the NFL limits its viewers to the streaming option. It likely will not be the last.
“We definitely view it as a trial, and a partnership,” Cahan said. “For us, the NFL really represents an opportunity to shift audiences from a traditional broadcast to now a digital experience. We take the notion of a trial pretty seriously because we’re looking at it as what some of the future opportunities might be together.”
The actual presentation of the game itself still will be controlled by CBS, with Kevin Harlan on play-by-play and Rich Gannon on analysis. Yahoo! will supplement the production with a pregame one-on-one interview of Jim Kelly by Katie Couric, plus audio from what Cahan called “an original Yahoo! studio show” that viewers can choose over the CBS commentary.
A more noteworthy variation from a typical broadcast will happen during breaks in play. Yahoo! was responsible for securing its own advertisements; it announced Thursday that those spots had sold in full, at a price reported by Sports Business Daily to be $50,000 per 30 seconds. According to that report, Yahoo! “is believed to be guaranteeing some advertisers a minimum of 3.5 million U.S streams.”
That’s a prospective audience that would surpass any previous Yahoo! streams, albeit one down significantly from the 9.9 million who tuned in for the aforementioned Dolphins–Jets game.
“We’ve done a number of large-scale events, ranging from Taylor Swift or Dave Matthews [concerts] or even some of the large-scale festivals,” Cahan said. Yahoo!'s live concert series last year averaged 369,000 viewers per event. “We’ve done large international news kind of events—the Michael Jackson funeral or papal visits, other things that draw in huge audiences that are very spikey. At any moment in time you can have a massive influx. ... All of the work we’ve done is, ‘How do you do very adaptive streaming capabilities on the fly?’ ”
Given the NFL’s mammoth TV footprint (and the resulting ad revenue), there is almost no scenario in the foreseeable future where the league would move a majority of its broadcasts to an online-only realm. However, that's not to say the status quo will hold.
In fact, it already is morphing at a rapid pace.
“If you look at what’s going on in the industry, we’re seeing for the first time ever cable and satellite subscribers are negative—(those companies are) losing subscribers,” Cahan said. “The way people are consuming video now has shifted. Certainly among millennials their preferred way of viewing is no longer on TV. ... We basically thought to ourselves, ‘Well, let’s prove that we can actually do almost a broadcast-like model and see if our audience and our ability to bring advertisers will benefit there.’ ”
Game Pass (and before it, GameRewind) has endured a string of technical hiccups. Since viewers have no fallback option, Yahoo will be under pressure to deliver across all available platforms—computer, tablet, phone, smart TV. Yahoo! will be “offering this in 60 frames per second; traditional internet video is 30 frames per second,” Cahan said. “At the high end, we’re delivering six megabits per second which is ultra HD-quality kind of an experience.”
It all sounds great. Now it just has to work.
Millions, including a very motivated NFL, will be watching.