By Annie Ross
Tonight’s Patriots-Buccaneers game can be seen on CBS and the NFL Network, or — if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber — the stream is there for the clicking.
The NFL calls it a “tri-cast” — which equates to more ways to consume games, increased audience potential and, of course, more money.
The debate used to be where to watch a game — home, at a sports bar or maybe a buddy’s viewing party. Those are still the most popular options for viewing the ultimate “TV sport.” Yet in a digital environment with evolving viewing habits for the younger generation, the decision increasingly may involve how to watch a game.
“Millennials basically watch everything on their mobile devices and don’t watch TV,” New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, chairman of the NFL’s broadcast committee, told USA TODAY Sports.
Count the ways to watch a game (or portions of a game). There’s the NFL Mobile package for Verizon customers. The Red Zone Channel, as part of the Sunday ticket on DirecTV. Streaming on X-Box, Apple TV, Firefox or the TV Stick, among others. The Watch ESPN app, meanwhile, is good for Monday Night Football and other programming. For Sunday Night Football, there are enhanced viewing options — including different camera angles, real-time stats and social media engagements — on the NBC website and the NBC Sports mobile app. The other network partners, CBS and Fox, have apps, too.
This is just the beginning, with the ubiquitous NFL streaming into a bigger pie that will impact future broadcast packages. After Twitter paid a reported $10 million to carry 10 Thursday night games last year, which averaged 266,000 viewers, the NFL hitched up with Amazon for a one-year streaming deal reportedly worth $50 million to the league for a similar package of Thursday games. The first Amazon Prime game (with added value to tap a global audience), pitting the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears last week, reached an estimated 372,000 viewers who stayed an average of 55 minutes, while 1.6 million customers initiated a stream.
Those are hardly huge numbers in the NFL environment. By comparison, Bears-Pack drew 14.6 million viewers on CBS. But league spokesman Joe Lockhart contends that one of the key takeaways from the Twitter experiment last year was that the additional platform represented “additional audience” that didn’t decrease viewership from the conventional broadcast and cable platforms.
The Twitter experiment also revealed a demographic fact of life.
“The audience definitely skewed a lot younger,” Amanda Herald, NFL vice president of media strategy and business development, told USA TODAY Sports. “It was even younger than expected.”
Still, despite the streaming mobile users, nothing comes close to matching the big-screen experience — at least for the more seasoned viewers. But the younger generation has grown up watching videos on phones, tablets and such.
“It will be interesting to see,” Herald added, “if they will watch for a longer period of time.”
Kraft clearly recognizes what the viewing patterns might mean in the long run. While the streaming deals of the past two years are exclusive from the traditional national TV packages, business models always evolve. Sure, the NFL has built an empire with games available for free on over-the-air networks. But given the growth of tech giants and changing viewing habits, maybe it’s Amazon today, Google tomorrow.
The NFL’s current TV deals, averaging a reported $7 billion per year, expire in 2022.
“We’re creating a data base,” Kraft said. “This will be very helpful when we have discussions for our next TV contracts in six years.”
Who knows? In six years, we could be talking NFL Singularity.