Why the NFL Should Give its Sunday Ticket Package to...No One

NFL Sunday Ticket has spent all 25 years of its existence on DirecTV, but will it find a new home for the 2020 season?
Publish date:

This year, the NFL rumor season didn’t end with the final pick of last week’s draft. Sorry.

Though you may have missed them while scouring mock drafts and scouting defensive prospects, coded messages and sourced stories this spring have fueled speculation about the future of the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package, which includes access to every non-local game. If you care about how you watch football, it’s time to catch up.

Sunday Ticket has spent all 25 years of its existence on DirecTV. But last month, commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed the league is considering how to modernize a product that to this point has largely been exclusive to satellite TV viewers. It has the option to find a new partner starting with the 2020 season. “We’ve had a 25-year partnership and we want to continue that partnership, but we also are looking to see how we can change the delivery,” Goodell told Bloombergin March. “We want it delivered on several different platforms.”

Soon thereafter, NBC News’ Dylan Byers reported that Amazon and Disney (owner of ESPN) were in play for Sunday Ticket. AT&T (which operates DirecTV) CEO Randall Stephenson followed that report by saying that Sunday Ticket “exclusivity should remain, as we go forward, on DirecTV” during the company’s most recent earnings call. With both B/R Live and an upcoming streaming service based around HBO, AT&T could keep the package and help the NFL improve access to it at the same time.

But one potential Sunday Ticket landing spot has gone under-discussed: home. That is, the NFL could opt to retain the rights themselves—or at least keep the digital portion while continuing to sell a satellite option through DirecTV. I think they should.

Initially, the NFL actually had the chance to end its DirecTV deal last year. However, both parties agreed to push the date back a season while the NFL tested interest in a digital offering in seven markets. If their subjects were anything like the fans I’ve spoken to, their findings will have been encouraging.

Now imagine what they would have found had they offered the type of enhanced Sunday Ticket only the NFL could put together. Thanks to last year’s agreements with FOX and CBS that brought local games to the NFL app, the league could use Sunday Ticket to combine every single NFL game, local and out-of-market, NFL RedZone, and fantasy challenges in a single app. Betting offerings could even be rolled in down the line. It would be the most popular single-sport platform—and exactly what the NFL needs to develop the next generation of fans.

While ratings bounced back in 2019, the league still has work to do attracting young adults. Going back to the beginning of the decade, male 18-24 viewership fell 5% between 2010 and ’13. In ’15, 18-to-24 year-olds were 15% less likely to be NFL fans than their older cohort. This year’s Super Bowl continued a seven-year stretch of declining ratings among adults 18-49, hitting a new low. Executives counter all that by pointing to worse declines elsewhere in the TV landscape and to rising social engagement numbers. One fact remains irrefutable: this country’s most dominant cultural product faces more competition from more alternatives than ever before. Now it has a chance to fight back.

After years getting dinged for splitting up game rights to dizzying effect, bringing everything to one place (on mobile at least; TV would remain somewhat complicated) would change the narrative. With control, the NFL could also prepare for our digital future. The league could develop a football-specific viewing experience that brings together highlights, stats and conversation. It could experiment with new price offerings and even try out fresh announcers.

In so doing, the NFL would be playing catch-up. Operating NBA League Pass (along with Turner Sports, also an AT&T company), the NBA introduced by-quarter purchases this year and tried out a handful of influencer commentators. The very suitors for Sunday Ticket have gone the same way, keeping their content on their own platforms, or going direct-to-consumer in business-speak. “Creating a direct-to-consumer relationship is vital to the future of our media businesses, and it’s our highest priority,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said when acquiring 21st Century Fox.

The NFL could make a fortune selling Sunday Ticket to a company looking to build its version of Netflix—or it could try to build its own, optimizing for fan behavior rather than serving another corporation’s roadmap, strengthening its brand and connecting directly with its viewers. Even if the NFL kept the extensive rights for only a couple years, it still would get every fan in the habit of using its app, an invaluable asset.

Beyond taking a page out of other media behemoths’ playbooks by maintaining content control, the NFL would be following its own precedent, too. In 2006, the NFL created an eight-game Thursday Night Football package. Supposedly headed to Comcast (for its erstwhile Versus channel) for $450 million per season, the games instead stayed home on the nascent NFL Network. The channel now generates over $1 billion each year. Keeping Sunday Ticket would once again require leaving money on the table. That’s a hard thing to do. But as Goodell said in ‘06, “Easier isn’t necessarily what we’re in the business of doing.”

It’s unclear when the NFL will make its decision. In the fall, NFL business reporter Daniel Kaplan wrote that he expected one by the league’s March owners meetings. (It’s worth noting here that the NFL Media Committee is led by Robert Kraft, who has had other things to deal with.) League decision makers have earned a reputation for making decisions based on the bottom line. The NFL did not provide any comment or update on the deliberations. As one source told Byers, "whoever writes the biggest check” will probably win Sunday Ticket, but this is an opportunity for the league to prove it’s thinking differently amid industry shifts. 

As rumors continue to fly about who will buy access to half the league’s games, keep in mind that “no one” remains a viable possibility. While it might be a dark horse, it could be the one to root for.