By: Ben Reichard
The first Sunday kicking off the 2022 NFL season was just days away. Like millions of fans across the country, I was both hopeful and anxious for how my team would start the season. But I had another reason to be nervous: I couldn’t figure out a way to watch my beloved Washington Commanders.
I had just moved away from the Washington, D.C., region to Boston, and with that relocation, abandoned the Commanders’ media market. If I subscribed to cable, the New England Patriots would be shown on Sunday afternoons. I would only be able to watch the Commanders when a network broadcast their games nationally, such as Monday Night Football. But I figured that by 2022, there had to be a streaming service for NFL games, some of the highest rated broadcasts of the year.
I quickly learned otherwise. Networks have a series of agreements assigning who and where gets which games, and networks are protective of those broadcasts. Other options are limited. A program called NFL Sunday Ticket offers live out-of-market games, but that program is only carried by DirectTV, which is not available in my neighborhood. The League offers a program called NFL+, but it only shows out of market games after they end. Ultimately, I had to download a VPN and purchase an international NFL GamePass account, which does not have to follow any U.S. blackout restrictions and could broadcast live out-of-market games. I finally found a way to watch my Commanders miss the playoffs again.
Still, I could not believe how difficult it was to access NFL games. I wondered how out-of-market fans followed their teams and why broadcasts were still so tightly linked to cable TV and traditional media markets despite plummeting subscriber numbers.
As it turns out, the League was already aware of the problem. Thanks to a string of agreements made between the NFL, networks, and even Google over the last few years, changes are coming, starting in the 2023 season.
A massive $113 billion network deal signed in March 2021 will shape most of the landscape. Running through the 2033 season, it will bring the League a little over $10 billion a year annually. Network coverage – in terms of which networks get which games – is not changing much. What is new, however, is networks’ commitment to airing games on their streaming platforms.
For $2.1 billion annually, CBS purchased rights to continue broadcasting Sunday afternoon AFC games. They also have rights to show games on their Paramount+ subscription streaming service. Fox will still show Sunday afternoon NFC games. They purchased those rights for $2.2 billion per year, along with rights to air games on their streaming service, Tubi.
The marquee prime time games are also staying with their current networks. NBC is keeping Sunday Night Football for $2 billion a year, and their service Peacock will have exclusive coverage for a handful of games. Monday Night Football is staying on ESPN/ABC for $2.7 billion per season. Those games can be streamed on ESPN+, which will also get one exclusive international game each season.
Amazon is retaining Thursday Night Football for $1 billion per year. Games will be available on Amazon Prime Video and sometimes on Twitch. NFL Network will also still air a few games, although it is not clear which ones or when.
The largest change to coverage, however, is actually beyond these network deals. DirecTV had long held NFL Sunday Ticket, the program that offered the easiest way to view out of market games. That changed in December 2022 when Google’s YouTube TV service signed a seven-year deal for the program for about $2 billion per season. Since YouTube TV already carries the other networks as part of their TV service, it could become the one-stop shop for NFL content; everything outside of Thursday Night Football and ESPN+’s exclusive international game should be available on the platform.
Not everything is rosy for Google, however. In February 2023, a class action against the NFL was certified, alleging that the NFL coordinated with networks and DirecTV to “inflate the price of Sunday Ticket and make it less accessible to consumers.” The trial is set to begin in early 2024. The implications of this case are unclear, but an NFL loss could have repercussions for how Google can manage the product. There is also a lot of uncertainty around how the YouTube TV platform will offer Sunday Ticket, such as whether customers can buy a Sunday Ticket subscription separately from the regular TV subscription. Early indications suggest it will at least be less expensive than it was on DirecTV.
Thanks to these deals, the NFL will almost double its media revenue. That has important implications for the growth of the salary cap, which is partially a function of those revenues. That will help facilitate higher player salaries. The deal with the networks includes an out for the NFL after seven years, so the League could renegotiate at that point if the value of their broadcasts continue to climb.
What does this all mean for fans? NFL games should be a lot more accessible, especially for wayward out-of-market fans like myself. That is a Lombardi-sized win for everyone.