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Is the NFL (National Football League)’s decision to partner with YouTube a sign that a major assault from Google for live premium rights is on the horizon? Owen Evans reports.

“The one question that nobody is asking is: what are the likes of the Googles and the Amazons of this world going to do with live sport further down the road?”

According to sports media veteran Harvey Schiller, there could be more than meets the eye to the news in January that the NFL had signed a partnership with YouTube, creating an official channel for the American football league on the video-sharing platform.

The NFL did not disclose terms of the multi-year deal, but it will cover video distribution and advertising sales on YouTube, as well as putting NFL clips on Google’s search homepage. Google will handle ad sales for the channel, which will be split on a revenue-share agreement.

The NFL is not the first major United States sports league to partner up with YouTube, with the likes of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the NBA (National Basketball Association) already signed up to official partnerships with the Google-owned platform.

“We’ve been talking to the Google family for years, and finally found the opportunity to partner,” said Hans Schroeder, NFL senior vice-president of media strategy, business development and sales. “We sort of wanted to wait for the right deal. It maybe took longer to get there. But this deal has the right level of appreciation on both sides.”

While secrecy surrounds many of the particulars, the NFL has been keen to emphasise that the deal is focused on non-live content, allowing the league to keep fans captivated in the long March to August off-season.

All of which leads to the obvious question – could it be a partnership that will eventually allow fans to use YouTube to watch live streams of primetime matches, like last month’s Super Bowl?

YouTube has already set out its stall on this matter, with communications manager Matt McLernon stating in the past that YouTube “would welcome it with open arms if the NFL or any other league wanted to show live games on the site”.

“The traditional buyers and rights-holders in the United States have barely changed over the years, you know to expect the likes of Fox, ESPN and NBC in every major rights bid,” Schiller told SportBusiness International. Schiller was a former vice-president of Turner Sports, and is now the commercial commissioner of sailing’s America’s Cup.

“It’s got to the point now where the people I speak to are saying, ‘is Google going to step in and bid for this one?’ I look at this sort of deal between the NFL and YouTube as the first step along the way to it one day showing live premium sports content.

“When you are thinking about what this means, just remind yourself of Google’s part in this, and what its potential role will be in the future of sports media. That’s what is going to happen over the next five to eight years.”

Captivating Off-Season

The YouTube deal marks a change in tack for the NFL, which had previously heavily policed unlicensed video content, pushing its fans online to either NFL.com or one of the league’s official broadcast partners.

Despite the NFL’s efforts to use YouTube’s Content ID programme to block unlicensed footage, sports fans still go to YouTube in their droves to access its content. For example, around 20 million YouTube users had viewed comedy video NFL: Bad Lip Reading 2015, published on January 22, in just three weeks. It is precisely these numbers that the league hopes to capture and make its own in the future.

Schroeder says he hopes the new channel will help to satisfy the “insatiable digital appetite” of the NFL’s younger demographic of sports fan. Content will be posted daily onto the NFL YouTube channel, and will include game previews, in-game highlights, post-game recaps and clips featuring news, analysis and fantasy football advice.

“You’ve got to keep in mind that an NFL season is relatively short,” adds Schiller. “It only runs from September to January, so what happens in the rest of those months? That’s when the real challenge takes place, as you have six or seven months where you need to keep people involved.

“How many are going to go to NFL.com if they are not a regular fan? Typically, if they are aged between 18 and 40 and a general sports fan, they will usually use YouTube as their point of entry, so it only makes sense for the NFL to have an official channel. Everyone else does. It’s what happens next in this partnership that I think will be far more interesting.”

Game highlights and other content will also be available through and around Google’s search engine home page, which will display official NFL videos alongside related news and information in a box at the top of the page. Kick-off times and broadcast information for every NFL game will also be prominently displayed.

Business Barriers

There is a problem with Schiller’s theory, however. As pointed out by Tomos Grace, YouTube’s head of sport in the UK, at the SPORTEL event in Monaco last October, YouTube is a video-sharing platform, and
not a ‘buyer of rights’ in the same way as Fox and NBC.

For Google to enter the major rights-bidding audience via YouTube, it would need to rip up a business plan that Grace says attracts a billion unique users every month to the platform and raises annual advertising revenues that are believed to be in excess of $5 billion.

“Google’s potential switch to a media-rights buyer isn’t going to happen overnight, but it is definitely coming,” says Schiller. “For now, I think the new deal will allow the NFL to be as effective as possible in reaching its younger generation of fans.

“Anything you can throw at those fans that lasts a couple of minutes and helps to connect them to your sponsors is obviously going to be good for the league.”

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