NFL Finally Gets Into the Digital Game

For the last few years, it’s been easier to sack New England quarterback Tom Brady than to get the National Football League (NFL) thinking about a more progressive Internet strategy. “They’ve been very dictatorial about the amount of content you can put on your Web site,” Gartner Digital Media Analyst Allen Weiner told the E-Commerce Times. Other sports leagues have run laps around the NFL with their digital offerings.

Then again, the New York Giants found a way to introduce Brady to the turf during the Super Bowl. So file today’s announcement from the NFL — that it will stream all its Sunday night games live on its Web site for free — under the “Anything Can Happen on Game Day” category.

Beginning with the Giants-Redskins matchup on Sept. 4, fans will be able to watch entire games on NFL.com and on NBCSports.com, as well as on the NBC, which has broadcast rights to the Sunday night games.

The online coverage will include multiple camera angles, on-demand video highlights, live blogging and ongoing in-game statistics. Picture-in-picture technology will also be available.

Going on Offense With the Internet

If it seems like the NFL is reversing field faster than Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, consider this statement in the league’s press release: “Sunday Night Football Extra is a one-year experiment which will help the NFL gain insight into fan viewing habits.”

What does the NFL hope to find out? “I think the only thing that remains to be seen is, does it have an impact on TV audience?” Bobby Tulsiani, digital video analyst for JupiterResearch, told the E-Commerce Times. “If this starts to cannibalize that, you’ll see them pull back very quickly.”

The league may have gleaned a little of that audience data — and learned a lesson in humility — during the controversy over the final game of last year’s regular season; NFL.com offered brief, live “look-ins” of the Giants-Patriots game as New England claimed its historic 16th straight victory.

Originally, the game was only going to be available via broadcast on the league’s own NFL Network, which has very little cable penetration. However, after fan outcry, it was also offered to broadcast television.

“Maybe they learned that partners are important,” Tulsiani said. “You don’t want to alienate a partner. [The NFL] has known that for some time, but they’ve had these PR battles and nightmares with Comcast during the launch of the NFL Network, and they’ve still had trouble. I can’t read the commissioner’s mind, but maybe they’re not ready to fight that battle online in the short term.”

The Future of Football?

The Sunday night strategy is an experiment for the league in another way, according to Weiner. “Who knows where this could lead … new kinds of negotiations for rights deals, the ability to offer premium services. Maybe the NFL won’t even sell their rights anymore and keep them so they can distribute content themselves. The sports leagues become their own networks. … The NFL may be turning the corner and thinking more about its future. We’re on the verge of a very interesting revolution.”

The NFL, said Weiner, can look to Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League as role models in developing digital strategies. Baseball started offering live streaming of games in 2002 as a pay-for-play service, and the NHL began streaming all its games during the 2007 season thanks to a partnership with Neulion.

“The model for sports leagues would be the NHL,” Weiner said. “They’re going in an interesting direction with the Web, because of the global nature of the sport in terms of players, where they come from. The NHL has a closer relationship with all the teams participating in this.”

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