We know you’re ready for some football. But are you ready to stream some football?
This season, that’s a question not just for fans, but for the entire National Football League, and executives at the broadcast networks, cable and new media companies—and the attorneys who handle the contracts and legal obligations.
Broadcast contracts for the Park Avenue-headquartered NFL—which by the end of their runs will have brought the league $27 billion—are locked up until 2022. To put that in perspective, realize that is about $7 billion annually and breaks down to roughly $200 million annually for every team, before the players even strap on their helmets.
Stealing the spotlight from gaudy figures like that isn’t easy. But Amazon Inc. did it with a flashy number of its own—as in $50 million—to outbid the field for the streaming rights to 10 Thursday Night Football games earlier this year.
That’s 10 times what Twitter paid last year, when it estimated its audience at 2.7 million viewers per game, but if Amazon’s strategy works out it will be worth every penny. The online retail titan is counting on the NFL to boost subscriptions to Amazon Prime, its $99-per-year subscription service.
You’d think that price tag would buy you exclusivity, but not in this case. Verizon will stream games to its mobile customers, while CBS and NBC will stream the games that they broadcast.
About as ready for some football, or streaming, or broadcast rights, sponsorships or some stadium naming as an attorney could be is Steven Smith.
One of the nation’s top sports lawyers and managing partner of Bryan Cave’s Colorado Springs, Colorado, office, he’s negotiated TV sports deals with every major broadcast network and ESPN, and he’s put together more than $1 billion in stadium naming rights deals and $1.5 billion in sponsorship and licensing deals.
We took a few moments to huddle with Smith and talk about the streaming boom currently collapsing the NFL-media pocket, and it looks like there will be some extra billable hours this fall, or some extra headaches.
“I’m thinking a few of both,” Smith said.
New York Law Journal: What sort of impact is streaming having on the NFL and its TV rights at this point?
Smith: Streaming is changing the landscape. You’re going from a situation where you had a few sports properties with the money and ability to put on a national broadcast, to one where, with the internet, just about anybody can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of people at a very low cost.
Why are Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and the others so appealing to the NFL? And vice versa?
What the new media companies bring to the table is huge audiences. What did Amazon say they could reach the other day, 200 million people? It’s huge audiences and it’s market presence. Everybody can have access … whether you’re in Peoria, [Illinois,] in Beijing or in Johannesburg. And there is the data-driven targeted marketing can offer.
What the league can bring to some of these companies is instant credibility, by their having a seat at the table. And the NFL is still the gold standard when it comes to sports.
Whether you’re a broadcast network, cable company or new media company, live sports, and live exhibitions are the one thing that can make you relevant. I think most people believe this generation will still want to see the Super Bowl or a favorite baseball team in a different market. They’ll want to watch their live sports, it’s a question of how?
So this is sort of uncharted territory for everyone?
The networks and the league know that Generation X and millennials are cutting the cord. They have to ask themselves, how do we make this work? Everybody is facing those same sort of questions.
The networks know younger consumers are leaving Dish, DirecTV and cable and buying subscriptions from Hulu and Netflix. They’re going to have to figure out, how do we reach those people?
If you’re the NFL and you do a deal with NBC, do you give them the streaming rights too, or do you do it yourself, or go through an ESPN or another platform altogether? You’ve got Twitter, Facebook and Google out there, all wanting to get involved.
The business model that has been stable for roughly 40 years is changing very rapidly. Take ESPN for example. If you do some quick back-of-the-envelope math, 10 million or more people have cut the cord, so they’re not paying for cable TV or satellite. Say that’s $6 a month that ESPN receives times 12 months, times 10 million … that’s nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars ($720 million). That’s not going to be easy to make up, and the ESPNs of the world have to make that up somewhere.
The question is, can you monetize streaming enough to make up that difference, and to what extent? A lot of people have assumed that if the revenues that ESPN is receiving are dropping, then rights fees paid for sports properties would also drop, but that’s not a given. In fact, we haven’t really seen that happen to a great extent.
Is Disney’s new digital package with ESPN the wave of the future?
It’s one way to address this. It will be interesting to see what business model ESPN ultimately chooses. It has a deal with Hulu to offer ESPN as part of a monthly subscription fee, but will ESPN want to continue that, will they look for other operators or will they want to control the streaming and do all of that themselves as well? Or will it be a combination of all of the above? That is something a lot of people are watching.
Sort of lost in all this is the quality of the broadcasts. Do we think Facebook can necessarily bring a football game on a comparable level with the networks?
This year will be a test of the capabilities of the streaming companies, especially Amazon with Thursday Night Football. Can they deliver all that we think they can? Is everything going to work? People have expectations of how the productions are supposed to look, basically like what they’re used to seeing, but will it be? At the same time, maybe there will be enhancements or new looks that an Amazon might bring to the table. It will be very interesting to watch.
What is it like negotiating and drawing up a sports rights contract in the current climate?
The hardest part is accepting the uncertainty, which makes it tough to deal with from a business and legal perspective. It’s scary when you draft these contracts, and you put together a five-, six- or eight-year deal, and you know that technology is going to change a lot over the term. I think we might see some shorter contracts to protect both parties, because we just don’t know what’s coming. After all, five years ago streaming was a neat little thing.
What are other ways to deal with it?
Because everything is evolving so much and so rapidly, you have to be able to adapt, and be ready for anything. In the past you could do that deal with a network say, for all your media rights, and the network is going to make sure that they’re the exclusive providers. But now you have to be ready for whatever develops, whether it’s streaming, or over-the-top content, or the next big thing, so our concept of exclusivity is changing.
Everybody wants to be on board with the next big thing, but not many people know what the next big thing really is.
So you don’t expect the streaming boom to bring a bonanza?
I do naming rights for venues, and I did the naming rights for the Dolby Theater in Hollywood where they put on the Academy Awards. A big part of the value in that deal was the fact that something like 2 billion people watch the Oscars every year and hear “Dolby Theater” mentioned half-a-dozen times or more. With so much riding on that exposure, we had to try to anticipate how technology could change and how that might impact the value of the deal. And part of the equation today is whether streaming and the new landscape will provide as much exposure. But if the Oscars are streaming everywhere, are you still getting your value?
I look at it this way. When TV came to prominence, radio was king, and with the rise of TV, a lot of people said radio was dead. It didn’t die, and in fact it is going strong decades later, albeit in a different world. I think we’ll see the same thing happen with television—it will still be important for a long time.
As for digital, a lot of smart people are figuring out how to make it work financially, and it sure gives a lot of smaller sports a way to reach their fans. We’re in for an exciting decade ahead of us, I think.
We’ve been hearing a lot about Sinclair Broadcasting getting involved in the next round of rights deals. Are they going to be players?
Sinclair Broadcasting could well be a force in the bidding the next time around. They have a pretty good history, although they don’t get the same kind of exposure as comparable TV companies, but they seem to be very aggressive right now in terms of pursuing joint ventures and partnerships, so that may change.
If they get in on one of the traditional broadcast deals, who gets bumped?
If they do bid their way into a contract, their gain won’t necessarily mean someone else’s loss. Yes, it is pretty much a finite pie, but it’s growing a little bit all the time because of new sports, or sports that haven’t achieved mass popularity yet. An analogy would be ESPN. When they started they had things like Australian rules football … but they made a splash and they went head-to-head with the big guys and did OK and they became the fourth player with the Big 3 networks. Fox did the same sort of thing when they came onto the scene with the other broadcast networks. CBS, ABC and NBC didn’t die—they figured a way to make it work. I suspect we’ll see the same thing here.
Looking at the big picture, doesn’t it make sense to look beyond football when making the best NFL rights deal?
There are sports that are going to become more popular, but it isn’t easy to tell which ones. You have to think about which emerging sports have the potential to capture a really big market, or at least gain a strong foothold in a niche market. One good example of this is The Rugby Channel. They have developed a great network for rugby fans, which gives those fans the content they crave while also helping rugby grow in popularity in the U.S. And maybe there are ways to leverage those smaller rights deals or make them part of a bigger rights deal.
The value of other rights deals are going up. The NBA and MLB have huge deals. Baseball is made for streaming, and the powers that be formed MLBAM (MLB Advanced Media), which has been the leader in streaming, so much so that Disney is in the process of acquiring a significant stake in them. The baseball owners and consultants got together and found a way to deliver these games, most of which were already being produced, and they found a way to deliver them to serious fans. Who’ll be the next one to do something like that?
It will make sense to keep an eye on college football too, and see how they handle the onset of streaming. What will it do to their rights deals? Will it trigger another realignment like we had five years ago. And the experience of college football will be watched carefully in the industry and could impact other sports.
It seems the networks are losing their stranglehold on the NFL. Are they in trouble?
No, even with the explosion in streaming, television is going to be relevant and lucrative for the foreseeable future. Remember, when TV came in they said radio was done? It didn’t die, it just evolved and found a niche.
Do attorneys ever set strategic courses for NFL and other leagues, and for the teams or media companies?
It depends on the relationship with the client. Some attorneys have input on the direction of a deal or the overall strategy. But sometimes the business people come in and say, “This is what we want to do, please paper it.” Other times attorneys will have close advisory relationships with their clients, or it will be done informally, in conversations over time.