Bear witness to the genesis of a new era, fellow sports fans. I've begged and pleaded in the past for the major professional sports leagues to take the harness off of the ability to stream games. Even as the trend of cord-cutting has progressed along nicely, I have always argued that the only dam keeping a flood of cord-cutters at bay has been professional sports broadcast deals. Those deals have almost universally been saddled with local blackout restrictions, making streaming games all but useless for the majority of fans. The past few years, however, have seen inched progress towards wider availabitily for streamed offerings. The NBA's most recent contract went out of its way to make sure streaming is expanded, for instance, not to mention the deal Dish and ESPN made to make the cable channel's broadcasts more accessible for streaming. But those were baby steps, too often leashed by a cable subscription requirement.
But, now, the NFL is finally dipping its toe in the streaming waters. Please understand that, even if this is just another inch gained for streaming, this is a huge deal.
On Monday, the NFL announced the Oct. 25 regular season game between Jacksonville and Buffalo will be put up for bid on national digital platforms. The game is being played in London, meaning the broadcast will begin at 9:30 a.m. ET and 6:30 PT. That's not exactly prime time for U.S. fans, or broadcast television, but it is 'prime time' in China, where the NFL is struggling to gain a toehold.
"It's a one game test. We will evaluate fan feedback," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said via an email exchange. "It's too early to tell about the future [of streaming games]. Will test this season with the one game and evaluate after."
Separately, the NFL said it's going to drop its so-called blackout rule, which prevents local broadcasts of games if they're not sold out 72 hours before kickoff. NFL media executive Brian Rolapp said the league is "testing alternative ways to distribute games," The NYT reports, and acknowledged the obvious: "The world is changing very quickly."
If this seems like a small step, you don't know how savvy the folks in the NFL's media department are. They absolutely know where the trends have us all heading regarding media consumption and I can promise you they are keenly aware of how many people are currently watching streaming NFL games on illegitimate sites. The most consumed sport in the United States doesn't turn on a dime, but the league also doesn't put up this kind of test balloon without having a fairly certain idea of how it's going to play with its customers. Assuming the quality, cost (free?), and accessibility of this test game is anything remotely comparable to, say, baseball's MLB.TV offering, expect this to end up as an insanely successful test-run. I'd actually say that this test game feels more like the NFL looking for an excuse to jump fully into a streaming offering than some kind of fact-finding mission. After all, you only drop the blackout rule in conjunction with expanding streaming if you expect the locals to run with the offering full-force. And they will, I assure you.
The NFL's DirectTV and network deals mean streaming won't explode immediately, but everyone can see what the NFL is doing to position itself for the future.
Given its agreement with DirecTV and television networks -- the NFL signed $27 billion worth of contracts in 2011 -- the league will be restricted on what it can offer online, at least in the near term. But the NFL is "a master of dicing and splicing content in order to extract the greatest value," [media analyst Walt] Piecyk says. "It's not like they're committing to put a bunch of games [online] but I think they want to get more comfortable so if Google or Apple or Amazon comes down the pike and says 'we want to buy a larger chunk of games' they can get comfortable on tech front."
And speaking of MLB.TV, reports are that professional baseball is due to get its own expanded streaming offering. The MLB.TV service has long been the standard in sports streaming, with no other league offering really even coming close. The problem, however, was that local games were blacked out, so the service was only useful for out-of-town fans or die-hard baseball fans that will watch any MLB game any time it's available (me, for example). If recent reports are to be believed, however, MLB is looking to take a small step to changing the blackout rules for streaming
Major League Baseball is expected to announce in the next few days a deal with a national distributor, like a wireless provider, to stream local games of every MLB team, a source close to the situation said Thursday.
To stream games of the New York teams, fans would have to be a customer of the distributor and pay for the YES Network or SNY, the regional sports networks (RSNs) that carry Yank and Met games, respectively. The price to stream has not yet been set.
This is an imperfect first step, of course, particularly as it carries with it the anchor of either a cable subscription, a specific wireless device provider, or both, but it's an important step in the right direction. It's something akin, actually, to the DirectTV deal the NFL has, except that it's more mobile and more widely available on a variety of devices. You should also expect any deal MLB signs for this streaming to be less locked in than the NFL/DirectTV deal, because, again, everyone knows where this is all heading. And, if the reports are true, even the television broadcasters are resigning themselves to reality.
Talks between MLB and Fox Sports, which owns 15 RSNs, including YES; Comcast, which owns six, including a minority stake in SNY; and DirecTV, which owns four, have been on-again, off-again for more than a year. The talks have accelerated in the last two weeks, and both sides are optimistic a deal will be reached before Opening Day, April 6. Under that agreement, fans would deal directly with their pay-TV provider.
Is it as perfect a solution as simply working out deals to unleash the local broadcasts on the MLB.TV stream that customers have been watching all the non-local teams on? No, absolutely not, but this first iteration's imperfection will only catalyze MLB to go the correct route in the future. Because the trends are clear: streaming is up and cable subscriptions are down. Even if the NFL and MLB don't get this right the first time, they will absolutely be forced to get it right in the near future.
Either way, one eventual reality is coming ever-closer to fruition: cable television, and perhaps television as a whole, may soon be over.