The National Football League (NFL) has revealed that consumption of games on digital platforms has jumped 65 per cent from 2017 through week four of the new season, with an average minute audience of 326,000 viewers per game window across different platforms.
The biggest growth has come from fans streaming games on their phones, where the average audience is up 147 per cent after the NFL opted not to extend its exclusive mobile rights agreement with Verizon in favour of divvying those rights up between various networks. As a result, NFL mobile rights are now held by Verizon, CBS, Fox Sports, ESPN and NBC Universal.
Elsewhere, growth has been anchored by viewers on connected TV devices, where there has been a 54 per cent rise on this stage last season.
The news will come as a major boost for a league which has experienced a well-documented dip in viewership in recent years, with early indications suggesting that TV ratings are also up on last season.
In an attempt to arrest its ratings slide, the NFL opted to expand access to digital platforms this year, with all primetime games and Sunday afternoon local matches now available on mobile devices using the NFL app or Verizon media properties through any wireless carrier.
The NFL’s digital boost could feed into the league’s approach when it negotiates its next batch of domestic broadcast deals. The majority of its current contracts are set to expire in 2022 but it also has the option of cancelling its deal with out-of-market broadcast provider DirecTV in 2019.
The question for the NFL to address regarding the Sunday Ticket package is whether streaming has overtaken linear TV. By cancelling the deal with DirecTV it would allow the NFL to sell its global streaming and satellite rights for Sunday Ticket to another provider, such as a major tech company, which could then sell on the satellite rights to a traditional broadcaster.
The league already has experimental deals in place with a number of Silicon Valley firms, including a two-year, US$130 million global agreement with Amazon which sees the ecommerce giant stream Thursday Night Football (TNF) games.
However, Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief business and media officer, said back in August that tech giants will need to demonstrate that they can handle the huge live audience roped in by NFL games before the league considers selling them one of its premium domestic rights packages.
“We can get 25 million people; I have not seen a live event on the internet that can serve 25 million concurrent users at a high quality,” he said. “It’s one of these things that will need to be resolved, because money is not the issue for these guys.”