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Eric Fisher | NFL media deals show growing interdependence of league, broadcast networks

SportBusiness' US Editor looks at the National Football League's recent domestic rights renewals, and how despite a sharply enlarged focus on streaming platforms, the agreements show the league and its linear broadcast partners still need one another

The raw numbers and core elements of the National Football League’s recent set of domestic media rights renewals, while expected on many levels, were certainly eye-catching and will be the subject of industry discussion and envy for years to come.

More than $110bn (€92.7bn) in total rights fees. Eleven years of commitment. Future Super Bowls to be spread over four major American broadcast networks. A re-establishment of the NFL as the league with what is by far the richest set of media rights in North American sports.

But beneath that flashy surface, there was also a deeper, more fundamental truth: the NFL and its four primary television network partners – CBS Sports, ESPN/ABC, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports – absolutely need each other. They need each other now more than ever, and that collective need will likely grow even further in future seasons leading up to these deals’ 2033 completion. 

For the broadcast networks, the reasons for the urgent NFL need are simple and two-fold. First, there is simply no other programming, sports or otherwise, on United States television that even comes close to consistently generating the types of mass audiences the NFL does. The league, though down 7 per cent in 2020 regular season ratings, still averages a per-game domestic audience of more than 15 million viewers, well above the 8 to 10 million that even popular entertainment series now often struggle to reach. 

And for all of 2020 – despite significant retreats in many sports ratings amid pandemic-related schedule disruptions, a US presidential election cycle, and societal upheaval – the NFL still generated 20 of the top 25 and 42 of the top 50 American television audiences. Super Bowl viewership, often around 100 million, typically is about four times as large as any non-NFL program.

Second, cord-cutting continues to slice heavily into traditional television audiences as viewers increasingly embrace a mushrooming array of on-demand streaming options, either on a subscription (SVOD) or advertising (AVOD) basis, or both. Having NFL rights represents the best potential means for broadcasters to stem that bleeding.

“The bottom line in TV is that if you have the NFL, you’re relevant, “ tweeted Fox Sports executive vice-president and head of strategy Mike Mulvihill. “And if you don’t, you’re competing to be the least irrelevant.”

While it was certainly a seller’s market for the NFL, which was able to nearly double its annual domestic rights haul to more than $10bn, there is also plenty of need for the league to remain with its core broadcast television-based strategy.

For all the accelerating growth and industry interest in emerging streaming services – and the new deals indeed will provide plenty of content and consideration to platforms such as ESPN+, Paramount+, Peacock, and Tubi – the NFL’s power still fundamentally comes from its mass broadcast reach. 

More specifically, that reach directly fuels the league’s growing revenues, its accelerating national sponsorship business, its ability to make seismic impacts with its experiments in new technology, and its overall industry bragging rights.

There is simply no platform, at least for now, besides broadcast television that can consistently aggregate 15 million people, or more, around a particular piece of programming. And for the NFL, there’s nothing else that can help ignite all of these other facets of its business like its current media distribution strategy. 

It’s why even with all the forward-looking streaming components contained in the new batch of rights deals, the league is keeping 94 per cent of its game inventory available on linear TV, is confining its first all-digital rights package with Amazon to less-regarded Thursday night inventory that wasn’t particularly coveted by the broadcast networks, and is still choosing to base a key part of its future on a medium now often derided as a dinosaur. 

“While digital is growing, the traditional TV ecosystem is still incredibly rich, incredibly deep, incredibly broad,” said NFL Media executive vice president and chief operating officer Hans Schroeder. 

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