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Over the top | Evolution of Game Pass product gives NFL ‘optionality’

  • Product developed by Deltatre for European market
  • NFL argues that service is ‘complementary’ to free-to-air and pay TV deals
  • Technical glitches blamed on complexity of transition to new platform

As the NFL pre-season made way for the real thing last Thursday night and reigning Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots suffered a shock defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL and its ambitions for global expansion met their own moment of reckoning.

After the phoney war of beta-testing in the build up to the first game, the league debuted an updated version of its Game Pass over-the-top (OTT) streaming service for the European market.

The relaunch of the platform, which allows fans to watch every single NFL game live or on-demand across multiple devices, is a consequence of the league’s partnership with global sports marketing firm Bruin Sports Capital and advertising giant WPP which aims to drive expansion and improve delivery of the OTT service in Europe.

Under the terms of the agreement, media and technology firm Deltatre, a Bruin company, has redesigned the platform for a combined 61 European countries and territories.

The new platform, which it is important to note will not replace the different versions operated in North American or Canada, will allow the sport’s most ardent European fans to fast forward and rewind live games and view up to nine matches across five devices at any one time.

In addition to streaming every single NFL game live in HD, it will also give them access to NFL Network, the league’s 24/7 channel, the NFL RedZone highlights programme and a rich archive of on-demand NFL productions like the Hard Knocks series.

The product has been designed to be more portable and controllable – offering, for instance, the ability to download a condensed 40-minute version of a game and watch it on the way into work.

The new product will be licensed by OverTier – the name for the joint venture between Bruin Sports Capital and WPP that runs the NFL’s OTT business throughout Europe – and also marking his debut last week was Sam Jones, the new chief executive of the recently formed company.

Together with NFL UK chief executive Alistair Kirkwood he demonstrated the product and fielded questions at its official launch at the NFL’s UK headquarters in London. Here are 5 things we learned at the launch:

  • 1. New product designed to offer portability and control

“The product has been redesigned from the ground up, both in terms of technology and the user experience,” said Jones. “I think too often in all software there’s an over focus on the big screens and the big products and it gets left off the mobile roadmap but this works across all devices, so it works the same in mobile as it does in desktop.”

The new service is also available via Google Chromecast, Apple TV and Xbox One while PS4 and Amazon Fire TV apps will also launch in September.

In the demonstration, Jones placed the emphasis on the quantity of live games available on the platform in addition to its portability and controllability.

He explained how the product would allow fans to jump between multiple streams at any one time but also take time zones out of the equation by allowing for fans to download content and watch it on-demand at a time of their choosing.

He said: “The ability to make the game portable, to take it outside of the stadium, take it outside of the time zone is critical to us. So, we can download content, the user can download content to the mobile device and they can choose the quality in which they download that content.”

Like Deltatre’s BT Sport app, the product offers viewers the chance to jump between key moments indicated by a ‘big play’ indicator running across the bottom of the screen. Another classic Deltatre feature is the way the video is overlaid with live data.

“You’ve got live data working with live video,” said Jones. “What that means from a user point of view, as I skip forward or back in a game, is that the stats around teams, around players, plays and scores are all going to update in real time.

“So there’s today’s use case of that which could be anything from someone who’s a fantasy football player looking to get live information all the way to someone following their favourite player and there’s tomorrow’s use case for that, which is the future of television.”

  • 2. Product glitches down to ‘transition’ from old platform

Jones and Kirkwood were the first to admit that the launch of the new product has not been without its teething problems. A quick search of social media will show that in the changeover to the new service, European subscribers to the previous version of Game Pass lost access to their apps and content before their subscriptions expired while Xbox customers complained that the new product has been difficult to stream on their consoles.

Jones argued that problems were inevitable as OverTier pulled the plug on the previous version of Game Pass and started the new one.

“I think we’ve been in transition in terms of platforms, suppliers and people, and we worked with the NFL to do that transition at what we felt was the right time of the year,” he said. “I think in any major software platform transition, you’re going to have challenges along the way, and I think what’s important for me personally is how we respond to those challenges.”

IMAGE: Dallas Cowboys played New York Giants during the first weekend of the NFL season (Getty Images)

Jones added that OverTier is incorporating fan feedback directly into the product development process in response to some of the complaints while Kirkwood remained confident that the service would eventually be a success.

“I don’t mean to be glib about it but if you look at the structure of our sport, teams use pre-season to test and trial and to actually get better on an ongoing basis,” he said.

“You could have a year or two lead-in time and you still need customer feedback in pre-season to fine tune and actually get it better. So, I think it what is actually critical is that it’s a great product at the start of the season.”

  • 3. Data aggregation and ‘optionality’ more important than monetisation at this stage

The beauty of the streaming service for the NFL is that it opens a two-way communication with its fanbase and allows the league to aggregate substantial quantities of data about how they view and consume the sport.

OverTier is working with data specialist agency Two Circles, part of the WPP Group, to use this information to grow the Game Pass subscriber base.

For the time being, Kirkwood argues that the help this data will provide in growing the league’s footprint is more important to the NFL than trying to monetise the data. It will also give the NFL an improved stake in the OTT game.

“This is much more about understanding what our fanbase is looking for and meeting those demands and I think it’s also about adjusting, as we all are trying to do, to changes in the media landscape,” he said.

“I haven’t heard anybody who’s particularly strong at predicting what the future will be. I see it much more as optionality rather than monetisation at this stage but that’s not to say in the next few years that doesn’t mature and become that.”

Jones was reluctant to answer questions about revenue targets for the new platform, which has remained at the same price point as the previous version, but suggested that it has been performing well in its infancy.

“You can take a free trial for seven days to see if you like the product and people are coming on and taking out free trials in record numbers in our 61 territories and then, really pleasingly, at the end of that free trial they are choosing to buy,” he said.

“I’m not divulging individual numbers but I would be happy saying it’s above industry standard as indicated by us and all of the partners we work with.”

  • 4. New service ‘complementary’ to other NFL media deals

The NFL and OverTier were at pains to point out that the updated streaming service will not cannibalise linear broadcast audiences for the league in European territories.

Taking the example of the UK, where the NFL has a free-to-air media deal with the BBC and a pay-TV deal with Sky, Kirkwood maintained that the OTT product would serve a different section of the NFL audience.

“The BBC is brilliant for us from the perspective of being seen to become more mainstream, much more part of the sporting landscape, and obviously broadening the audience from a sampling perspective,” he said.

“Sky is superb for us in terms of being seen at the same level as the top sports that they’re well known for, and satisfying the sports lover that has grown into the NFL.

“Game Pass talks to that audience that wants to have flexibility or wants to have offerings that are not available within our existing broadcast relationships and that’s mainly a capacity issue.”

Essentially this marks the product out as a niche offering for NFL obsessives who either want every single NFL game, access to NFL archives or to break the shackles of linear TV and follow a specific team.

“It’s not necessarily about how a broadcaster would choose to present it. You can choose what you want to watch, you can choose when you want to watch it, you can choose how you want to watch it, whether it’s in condensed or long form,” said Kirkwood.

“If you have substantial leisure time available or a real passion for NFL, you’ve got literally thousands of hours of content whether it’s live NFL Network or library programming.”

Questions remain about exactly how many NFL ‘super fans’ exist in the UK and Europe that would be prepared to pay for the service but Kirkwood remained bullish on the league’s growth prospects.

He also argued the league was only beginning to scratch the surface with a ‘complex’ series of media deals that includes a new OTT relationship with Amazon and deals with Twitter and a dedicated Facebook Live show.

“They’re all complementary. The reason why they would not be complementary is if we were not on a growth trajectory because if your pie was the same size, all you’re actually doing is cutting up and dividing smaller portions,” he said.

“But in the last five years we have grown substantially and I believe the BBC will continue to create a much wider funnel for new fans for us which will then lead to greater Sky audiences and also bigger Game Pass subscriptions.”

It was revealed that all 332 NFL games (pre-season, regular season and post-season) would be available live and on-demand using the service outside of the UK.

In the UK, 298 games will be available live, with all 332 available on demand. The only games blacked out in the UK are the regular season games shown live on Sky Sports.

  • 5. Why has it taken so long? 

The NFL is the first to admit that it has come to the OTT game later than other major US rights holders. The NBA, for example, has its League Pass product while MLB Advanced media has been taking baseball direct to consumers through a number of industry-leading OTT products for years.

Kirkwood admitted that Game Pass started out as digital product designed to service a small contingent of fans but changes in the media environment and fan consumption habits mean the time is right now to give the product more support.

“We are a league that is pretty good at putting large scale events on, we are pretty good at structuring a game that excites a lot of people, increasingly around the world,” he said.

“The confessional part is to recognise that whilst we’ve been doing it for a few years, we haven’t put it to the forefront and one of the reasons why we haven’t put it to the forefront of our business is because this is an area of our business which we’re not particularly the experts in.

“We’ve seen growth in our subscriber base, in spite of our lack of proficiency in this area. And so we conducted a search and made a decision to partner in Europe with OverTier and work with folks who are experts in the field.

“So we’ve worked with Deltatre from a product perspective, we’ve worked with Ogilvy, part of WPP, in terms of advertising [the product] and we’re working with Two Circles in terms of running the front end.”

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