NFL Makes Bold Move Streaming Sunday Night Games Online

Broadcast & Cable reports that the NFL and NBC will announce this week a plan to stream the entire Sunday night package online at NBCSports.com and NFL.com, a bold move for a league that has kept its digital content close to the vest.

It’s called a one-year experiment, probably to defuse the outcry from the other networks with big television deals – Fox, CBS, ESPN, DirecTV – who now have to fear, or perhaps welcome, the idea of the NFL streaming all its games online for free in the near future.

The NFL lends itself best to succeed in the digital world because it has the biggest home viewing audience, and most of that audience is already glued to a laptop tracking fantasy football stats. Now those same fans already multi-tasking with the game and computer on, have an online destination where they can track stats, get analysis, and watch the game. At worst, NBCSports.com and NFL.com can steal users from ESPN and CBS Sportsline by providing real-tiome content.

However, Sunday night football is an exclusive, so no other games are on. Therefore, NBC runs the riskof cannibalizing some of its audience, who have no reason to watch both online and on TV. During the afternoon slate, viewers who already sit and watch scoreboards all day, would gladly tune in to live streamed, out-of-market games, but Sunday Night, with one game on, it will be interesting to see where the viewers go.

TNT streamed the Western Conference finals live, but they added a twist to the online stream to supplement the TV coverage. Users had the choice of four camera angles to watch the game from, and a chat room. NBC should consider adopting both of these functions, while adding exclusive stuido coverage and blogging from the experts to draw people online without de-valuing the TV coverage. One way TNT forced you to keep the TV on was not streaming the announcers, an interesting tactic. But since the TV and online coverage appears asynchronous its distracting and disorienting.

NBC will sell ads separately, and stands to get a presenting sponsor for the video player. By teaming with the NFL, viewers should have access to plenty of highlights, past and present. The more they can engage the viewer and keep them on the site, the more successful this project becomes. It must integrate fantasy though. Not only game stats for the week, but perhaps in-game fantasy games to make it an interactive experience.

The biggest potential loser in all this is DirecTV, who holds an exclusive on out-of-market NFL games that carries its subscriber base. If Sunday night is successful, the next move is streaming out-of-market, ending DirecTV’s exclusive, which could significantly hurt the company long-term. Will the NFL adopt a for-pay scheme for out-of-market games to recoup some of the revenue it earns from the DirecTV deal, following a model similar to MLB? It’s possible, but too early to specualte.

Two more thoughts on the topic. First, NBC Sports needs to redesign its web page. Please don’t make accessing the online stream as painful as the three clicks to launch Wimbledon coverage. Put it on the homepage. In fact, let the NFL consult on designing your web page, or take notes on how CBS handles March Madness. Actually, I hope NBC gets that right for the Olympics. Second, with online streaming of live sports on the rise, I envision a series of ad networks developing to target this coveted audience. It could become the most lucrative online revnue stream.

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