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NFL Executive Questions Logic Behind Streaming Giants’ Alliance

  • Brian Rolapp said the NFL isn’t in discussions to bring on a partner for NFL Media.
  • The yet-to-be-named streamer would be missing games aired by CBS, NBC, and Amazon.
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the NFL, and other sports leagues, were surprised, and not in a good way, by the unveiling of the streaming venture among ESPN, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery in early February. 

Now, the NFL’s top media executive is questioning the business logic behind the initiative (also known as “Spulu”), echoing what many observers immediately asked: Why would consumers pay possibly $50 a month for roughly only half the sports programming out there?

Brian Rolapp (above), the NFL’s chief media and business officer, narrowed that critique to his own sport, the NFL. The yet-to-be-named streamer, which is expected to launch this fall carrying 14 linear networks, would have NFL games from ESPN and Fox but be missing games aired by CBS, NBC, and Amazon.

“So I’m trying to understand the value proposition,” Rolapp said in an interview during a break in this week’s NFL owners meetings in Orlando. “You are missing more than half of football. I’m not sure how comprehensive of a sports bundle it is.”

But Rolapp also allowed that in the messy transition from linear to digital, experimentation is not necessarily a bad thing, suggesting the NFL is at least sympathetic to the venture. Satisfying fans who are cord-cutters, or are cord-nevers, while at the same time feeding the still valuable linear system is a balancing act all media and sports are trying to pull off. 

“Having said that, the fact that they’re going in and trying to do something different, really trying to figure out this model is that’s always it, because you need to sort of be proactive in this environment, because it’s changing so much. I think that’s good.”

The NFL did not appreciate the surprise announcement during Super Bowl week, and there are some concerns that the streaming venture itself could collectively bid on games in the future. Currently that is not the plan, but if Fox and ESPN were to jointly bid for NFL games, then that hypothetically could reduce the number of bidders for games (the NFL’s TV contracts run through 2030, so this is hardly a short-term worry).

Earlier this month, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch projected the new service would reach five million subscribers by 2029, a fairly conservative goal. The streaming venture recently announced Pete Distad as its first CEO.

NFL Media’s Future

Rolapp also says the NFL is not currently in discussions about bringing on a partner for NFL Media, a goal the league has sought for the last two years.

“It’s almost two years ago, we were pretty clear, pretty public about the mission of NFL Network and the mission of our own operating assets,” Rolapp says. “And for that, we also realized that the landscape is completely changing, and that there’s probably areas where we’re going to need partners, and that we were going to be patient and see if any deal with any potential partner makes sense. We haven’t seen one yet.”

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