On Thursday, the NFL announced their latest round of TV deals, a series of decade-plus long pacts with existing rightsholders CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC, and Amazon, netting the league $10 billion in revenue per season.
There is a lot to unpack in all of the TV deals, but one thing is immediately clear: the NFL clearly values streaming platforms and isn’t afraid of games airing, exclusively or not, on those streaming services.
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Amazon’s deal with the NFL is the most significant from a streaming perspective, which makes sense since Amazon doesn’t have a broadcast or cable network. In Amazon’s new deal with the NFL, Thursday Night Football will exclusively air on Prime Video (except in the local markets of each team involved in the game, though that has been true even when the games only aired on NFL Network). Amazon had streamed TNF since the 2017 season, but games still aired on traditional TV via NFL Network, Fox, CBS, or NBC.
That will no longer be the case. The 15 game TNF package (and one preseason game, in case anyone actually gives a shit about that) will air nationally on Prime Video and Prime Video alone. Amazon got their first taste of an exclusive game last season with a Cardinals-49ers matchup, and they’re getting a much bigger piece of the NFL pie starting with the 2023 season. A cable subscription or antenna won’t be enough anymore if you want to watch one of the NFL’s broadcast windows. If you want to watch TNF each week, you need to get in bed with Amazon.
ESPN is another big winner in the NFL’s embrace of streaming. Starting in 2022, ESPN+ will air one exclusive game per season. This will be one of the NFL’s loathed international games, which take place in the morning stateside, but still – an exclusive game is an exclusive game. ESPN has also gained the ability to simulcast all of their NFL games on ESPN+, which essentially means that if you subscribe to ESPN+ but don’t subscribe to cable, you can still stream ESPN’s live NFL games. That’s quite significant, since with most marquee sporting events, you need that authenticated login in order to stream it.
NBC is in a similar boat to ESPN, because Peacock will stream all Sunday Night Football and playoff games in their new TV deal. Again, this is massive: no broadcast login, no problem. If you ponied up for Peacock just to watch The Office on a loop, you get live NFL games now too. Contrast that to NBC’s coverage of the Premier League – some live games are Peacock exclusive, and some can only be streamed on the NBC Sports app with a login. Now, either/or is sufficient. Peacock will also get one exclusive game per season starting in 2023, and is adding a whole bunch of NFL Films content. Peacock is now looking like a tempting subscription option for NFL fans.
Not to be left out is Paramount+, the recently rebranded streaming service owned by ViacomCBS. All of the CBS playoff games will be streamed on Paramount+, as will their regular season games. I’m assuming there will be a geolocation feature that locks you in to your local game, but again, streamers are getting access to live NFL games without an authenticated login.
If there’s a big loser In the streaming wars of the new NFL TV deals, it’s Fox, if only because their streaming service (Tubi, which Fox bought last year) is free. Putting live NFL games on a free, ad-supported streaming service doesn’t come with the potential benefits of putting live NFL games on a subscription streaming service, and thus, it’s not happening. Tubi will have to make do with condensed games and other on demand NFL programming, which it gains with Fox’s new TV deal.
I think the new TV deals have spotlighted a blind spot Fox has had for the last couple of years. While ESPN was building up ESPN+, CBS was cultivating All-Access and eventually rebranding and marketing it as Paramount+, and NBC was getting behind Peacock, Fox went in with Tubi. Tubi’s model is simple (free, but ads), and it wouldn’t surprise me if it eventually evolved to more closely resemble a tiered system with subscription fees. And if Fox wants to continue to compete in the growing streaming revolution, that will need to happen, otherwise the network will be left behind its competitors – and don’t think that various leagues aren’t paying attention to what’s happening in the streaming landscape.
But aside from with TNF, a package that three of the NFL’s four TV partners have had a go with, the NFL has managed to balance itself close to perfectly between the more traditional cable and broadcast model and the somewhat more radical streaming model. If streaming services collapse over the next decade, the NFL still has its established TV partnerships to lean back on. If customers continue to cut the cord, dump cable, and refuse to buy antennae, the streaming components included in these deals will allow fans to still watch the NFL without relying on satellite or cable companies.
The NFL is an outlier among the major American sports because of its limited game inventory and its independence from regional sports networks. But the way that the league has been able to balance its future reliance on broadcast and streaming in these TV deals has been impressive, and it will be tough to see any contender dislodging the league from its place at the top of the American sports landscape.
Sports Media Analyst
Joe Lucia has been covering sports media since 2011, and is a fan of the Ravens, Braves, and Manchester City. He was born and raised in Harrisburg, PA, but now makes his home in southern California with his wife.