This Week Showed Why Live Sports Are Key to Cable Being King

/ Oct 18, 2013

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The Wall Street Journal has been getting bad tips lately. After reporting that the NFL was toying around with the idea of selling a slate of Thursday night games to unconventional names like Google and Netflix, the WSJ was fiercely sacked by NFL PR:

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When asked over email if the NFL was considering shifting more games to Thursday, Brian McCarthy (tweet above) simply told BusinessWeek, “No.”

And with that, the Thursday night dream was dead. It seems games were not destined to stream on Netflix or YouTube, but at least we were able to dream for a few days. Thinking about it though, what would NFL games on Netflix or a Google platform mean for streaming TV? If this fiction turned to fact, would Big Cable be afraid?

Currently, the NFL airs 13 “Thursday Night Football” games on the NFL Network, which bring in around 7 million to 10 million viewers. Thursday night games were launched in order to boost numbers at the lagging NFL Network while spreading out the league’s audience across the week, instead of just Sunday and Monday.

The NFL’s plan has actually worked wonders for the network making it one of the five most expensive channels for cable companies. But the NFL selling to Google or Netflix? That’s just crazy…or is it?

Back in August, it was reported that the NFL was talking to Google about NFL Sunday Ticket, the pay-per-view package that has been DirectTV’s property since 1994. The idea was that Sunday Ticket would be distributed through YouTube and Google. While the DirectTV contract does not expire until 2015, it made sense for NFL to tease other options, even if it was a way to gain some leverage in negotiations with DirecTV.

What’s more, it’s clear that the NFL has no reservations about shopping around outside of cable. In terms of shirking DirectTV, the league could have gone to any major cable network, anyone of whom would have been more than happy to pick up Sunday Ticket. But they went to Google instead. What does this tell us?

Simply put, it tells us something we already know: Entertainment providers are taking streaming platforms deadly serious. The idea of the NFL going to Google six years ago would be laughable, but here we are. Google and Netflix have the resources, massive audiences, and infrastructure to support hungry NFL fans on every device conceivable.

And Google, for its part, would definitely be interested in taking such a huge slice out of cable — live events, especially sports games, are generally the hottest/most expensive content properties out there. During its quarterly earnings call with analysts yesterday, Google chief business officer Nikesh Arora said Google would be pretty much up for anything. “We’re constantly talking to people about content all the time, so sure, we will talk to anybody who wants to talk about content,” Arora said.

Plus, looking at it from a pure technology perspective, there have been recent complaints that DirectTV’s Sunday Ticket streaming service is far from bug-free.

During the first three weeks of the season, NFL fans experienced massive technological difficulties while streaming Sunday Ticket via DirectTV. The experience was so bad that Mike Benson, DirecTV’s chief information officer and EVP issued a statement the following Monday: “Both our online and live streaming service experienced technical difficulties intermittently throughout the day,” the EVP wrote. “We apologize to fans for the inconvenience this has caused them and are currently investigating the root cause to ensure this does not happen again.”

Streaming platforms’ biggest strength is, in fact, streaming. Based on both companies’ ability to provide technology alone, Big Cable should be terrified of Netflix and Google.

Unfortunately, as much sense as it may make to the web savvy among us, the NFL probably won’t sell content to streaming services at the end of the day. In reality, the league has a good thing going on with cable and the NFL Network. Jumping to streaming platforms would require a massive leap of faith for the NFL. When you have over 20 million guaranteed viewers on platforms like DirectTV, taking that first step can be painfully scary.

So here’s what we learned today: The NFL takes web TV seriously, but ultimately cable companies will probably own televised football for the near future. Two or three or more years down the road though, well, that’s a different story.

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