AT&T has dropped NFL Network and NFL Red Zone channels from its fiber TV service U-verse and skinny bundle service DirecTV Now, per Deadline. AT&T’s deals with the NFL quietly expired and the company hasn’t made any moves to renew them with the league. The channels remain on DirecTV, the satellite pay-TV service.
What it means: The removal of the channels from AT&T’s digital services could be an early sign that the NFL might seek new distribution for Sunday Ticket, the package of out-of-market games that has been distributed exclusively with DirecTV for the past 25 years.
NFL rights could increasingly become divvied among various partners, reducing exclusivity. A new deal for Sunday Ticket could include DirecTV plus a digital partner like Amazon: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell signaled last month that he was looking for a streaming partner for the package, per Bloomberg. Goodell also said that the NFL is seeking distribution across several different platforms.
It’s unlikely that rights will remain exclusive to a single partner, which could dilute viewership on traditional platforms and further widen the impasse between the NFL and its historical partners like DirecTV. The current rights deal runs through the 2023 season, but the league has an opt-out at the end of the 2019 season, so it could choose to change the terms and shift or expand distribution soon.
Sunday Ticket is likely to go to the highest bidder, and we expect that to be Amazon. While that could still be AT&T, Amazon is the likeliest prospective buyer for streaming rights, given its burgeoning relationship with the league. But Disney is also reportedly a contender for the rights, and the package would represent a major addition to its already massive arsenal of sports rights, and could foreseeably be used to turbo-charge its ESPN+ streaming service.
Google has reportedly wavered, though YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has previously suggested that the site could vie for sports rights. But despite ongoing interest from the NFL, Netflix is out: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and CCO Ted Sarandos have continuously reiterated that they’re uninterested in live sports for the service.
The bigger picture: The NFL’s eventual decision can be read as a proxy for how sports leagues are reevaluating distribution in the era of streaming video.
In recent years, the NFL has been experimenting with distribution through streaming platforms in an effort to maximize revenue from games. “Thursday Night Football” games have streamed on Amazon Prime Video for the past two years, and last season it also streamed free on Amazon-owned Twitch. The e-commerce giant has those rights through the 2019 season, but that package was first and previously carried on Twitter.
And other leagues have done similar experimentation by licensing out games to Facebook for distribution via Facebook Watch. And even though these platforms have yet to successfully lure viewers on the same scale as television, we expect that sports rights deals will become increasingly fraught in coming years as tech giants and traditional media companies fight over the same turf.
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