Comcast-owned NBCUniversal is focused on retaining Sunday Night Football, which has been the most-watched prime-time TV show for the last nine years.

Like Disney, Comcast could also challenge CBS or Fox for Sunday afternoon games.

By Harry Menninger

Negotiations for NFL broadcast rights are expected to heat up as soon as the league’s collective bargaining agreement is completed, which owners approved last Thursday.

Traditional media players Disney, Comcast, ViacomCBS and Fox — the current owners of NFL rights — are all once again the favorites to retain football broadcast rights for the remainder of the decade.

Amazon or another streaming service, such as ESPN+ or YouTube TV, could buy Sunday Ticket rights away from AT&T’s DirecTV, though it remains unclear if the league will negotiate that at the same time as its broadcast packages.

The results will have a major impact on traditional media as millions of Americans cut the cord on pay-TV each year. Owning live football games is crucial for networks like ESPN to charge expensive affiliate fees to pay-TV distributors, and for Fox and CBS to remain viable against deeper-pocketed competitors like Disney and Comcast.

The NFL knows this, and is expected to jack up renewal rates on all of its major broadcast packages — Thursday night, Sunday afternoon, Sunday night and Monday night, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to speak publicly because negotiations are private.

Rates on Sunday afternoon games may double, jumping from $1 billion annually to $2 billion annually. ESPN pays $2 billion annually for Monday Night Football and may need to pay $3 billion to keep the package, two of the people said. Renewals will likely be seven or eight-year deals, the people said.

While Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google may be the barbarians at the gate looking to disrupt traditional media, the NFL probably isn’t ready to sell exclusive rights to streamers, according to people familiar the matter. Instead, the current players — Disney (which owns both ESPN and ABC), Comcast (which owns NBC), ViacomCBS (which owns CBS) and Fox — will probably just pay the league a lot more money for what they already have. The NFL is comfortable with existing relationships and isn’t eager to rock the boat on a product that has seen ratings rise the last two years even as almost all other shows on traditional TV have fallen.

Live sports is “the most important Jenga block holding up the entire legacy media ecosystem,” according to LightShed media analyst Rich Greenfield. In other words, the traditional players need to win renewal.

Technology companies like Amazon may buy digital-simulcast packages like they have for the last few years — streaming games to a global audience as they’re simultaneously broadcast on network TV in the U.S. — as well as new, smaller packages carved out by the NFL.

If the league sticks with the status quo — ViacomCBS and Fox owning Sunday afternoons, Comcast owning Sunday Night and Disney taking Monday Night — traditional media will declare victory. Keeping the NFL (and preventing others from owning digital rights) will add enormous value to networks for future retransmission and affiliate fee negotiations while also propping up newer streaming products that may include live sports rights. (ViacomCBS already includes live NFL games in its CBS All Access streaming product.)

But those same media companies will also have to figure out how to to afford the NFL’s increases with an ever-shrinking pool of pay-TV subscribers, which means fewer eyeballs for advertising and fewer subscribers from traditional pay-TV revenue.

If a company like ViacomCBS pays $2 billion a year for the NFL, it will likely lose money on the investment in the early years of the deal and will have to rely on a flourishing streaming business and other future monetization avenues (sports betting, etc.) to make up the difference. The NFL wants to maximize revenue but doesn’t want to drive its media partners out of business, potentially making companies with smaller balance sheets (like Fox and ViacomCBS) more vulnerable to losing their rights deals.