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Tuned In: Is the NFL Flying Too Close to the Sun?

  • On Radio Row, there’s an elephant in the room: whether the league’s embrace of streaming could mean a pay-per-view Super Bowl.
  • “The NFL does what any business does. They try to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Phil Simms.
Feb 6, 2024; Las Vegas, NV, USA; The Super Bowl 58 logo is projected on the Sphere.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS — The NFL seems unstoppable from a TV standpoint, growing its season audiences by 7% to 17.9 million viewers in 2023. But some NFL media observers are wondering whether the league is flying too close to the sun with the lucrative siren calls of live-game streaming and pay-per-view.

Take this week: For the first time, the NFL ecosphere is openly discussing whether the Super Bowl will eventually go behind a paywall. It’s the elephant in the room. During every interview on Radio Row, I was asked this question by the hosts. It would be a Las Vegas–worthy roll of the dice by a league that built its popularity on free, over-the-air television. For decades, the NFL kept the Big Game—and almost all of its game inventory—on free TV, while boxing promoters embraced the riches generated by pay-per-view.

Now the NFL is the biggest force in entertainment, accounting for 93 of the 100 most-watched TV shows in 2023, and a record 115.1 million views for Fox Sports’ telecast of Super Bowl LVII. Boxing is almost an afterthought. 

The inflection point came when the NFL aired the first streaming-exclusive playoff game on NBCUniversal’s Peacock, which reportedly forked over $110 million for the Jan. 13 wild-card playoff matchup. They got the face of the NFL—Patrick Mahomes—and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins.

On Monday, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about putting the Super Bowl on a streaming service, he had a blunt answer. “Not in my time,” he said. But who’s to say what the next commissioner will do? The 64-year-old Goodell’s contract expires in March 2027, and this could be his last deal. His predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, ran the NFL for 16 years before retiring at age 65 in ’06. If Goodell completes his current deal, he will have been on the job for 21 years.

Sports commissioners are also experts at saying one thing and doing another. Goodell, for instance, once led the charge against legalized sports betting. In 2015, the NFL stopped Tony Romo from hosting a fantasy football convention due to the gambling connotations. Now, Romo will headline the NFL’s first Super Bowl broadcast from Las Vegas with Tracy Wolfson and Jim Nantz. You can get whiplash from the league’s 180. With the NFL, it’s always a good bet to follow the money.

The big question is whether viewers would buy into a future in which the league put the biggest game of the year on pay-per-view. Here’s some data from an exclusive Front Office Sports–Harris Poll conducted Feb. 2–5, 2024, among 1,079 U.S. adults, ages 18 and over.

  • Roughly half (51%) of surveyed NFL fans would be at least somewhat likely to buy a Super Bowl pay-per-view if it were available only as a pay-per-view event, with 28% being very likely to purchase a pay-per-view. 
  • One in 10 U.S. adults who are not NFL fans would be at least somewhat likely to buy a Super Bowl pay-per-view.

The ultimate sticking point for a pay-per-view Super Bowl could be the price, and few, it seems, would agree to pay a fee similar to what’s charged for premier pay-per-views, like MMA and boxing.

  • A third of those NFL fans who are at least somewhat likely to buy a Super Bowl pay-per-view (31%) would only be willing to pay less than $15 as a one-time fee if it was not available on network or streaming.
  • 29% of NFL fans who are at least somewhat likely to buy a Super Bowl pay-per-view would pay $35 to $64.99 as a one-time fee.
  • 68% of fans and 34% of non-fans would try to find a way to watch the game without paying (e.g., watching with someone they know, or on an unofficial stream) if the Super Bowl was aired only as a pay-per-view.

One obvious caveat: The NFL’s $110 billion cycle of long-term media rights deals with CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, and Amazon Prime Video run through the 2033 season, so it would be difficult for the league to move the Super Bowl to a pay streaming service, or offer a PPV, for at least a decade. Difficult, but not out of the question.

As ProFootballTalk reported in 2021, all of those media deals have early termination provisions that can be exercised by the league. NBC, while announcing its deal, said its extension can be terminated on “a one-time basis” after seven years. If live-sports streaming really takes off by the end of the ’20s, who’s to say the NFL doesn’t push the reset button on its billion-dollar media contracts?

Maybe that’s why former ESPN president John Skipper recently predicted the Super Bowl would move first behind a streaming service paywall, then go pay-per-view, within the parameters of the current deal. “Depending on who owns the Super Bowl, it would be more or less valuable to put it behind a paywall and get subscribers,” Skipper told David Samson on a recent podcast episode of Sporting Class. “After you have the consolidation of streaming services and big broadcast companies, that’s when it will actually go pay-per-view, I think. So you’re looking at three to four years.”

Feb 6, 2024; Las Vegas, NV, USA; The entrance to the locker room exhibit at the NFL Experience at the Mandalay Bay resort and casino.

Would the NFL Ever Put Super Bowl On Pay-Per-View? Harris Poll Survey..

An exclusive poll dives into the prospect of a PPV Super Bowl.
February 7, 2024

During CBS’s media day, Front Office Sports asked a number of broadcast TV veterans for their thoughts.

Chairman Sean McManus tells FOS he strongly disagrees with the notion that a paywalled Super Bowl is inevitable. “I don’t think so at all. Part of the reason the Super Bowl is as big as it is, is because it is available for free in every television home in America.” A lot of the mystique around the Super Bowl as a national holiday would be “lost” if the Big Game was behind a paywall, he warned.

Nantz, who’ll call Sunday’s game with Romo and Wolfson, expects to see more NFL games moving to streaming platforms from linear TV. “I’m sure there’s gonna be more to come. I’m just a guy like everybody else sitting at home on the couch wanting to follow something I love—and nobody cares what my opinion is on that,” he said.

And Phil Simms of The NFL Today said the Peacock move is a reminder that the NFL is big business, not a charity. “The NFL does what any business does. They try to make money and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Simms said. “As far as the fan part in me goes, I do feel bad or sad really for people who want to watch those games, but can’t afford to get the streaming content. Even some of my friends just say, ‘We’re not going to buy more stuff.’ So, I understand. I hope it doesn’t get completely out of hand, but I know it’s going to keep going that way.”

Will viewers see more NFL playoff games on streaming? Yes. The NFL already crossed that line, and it doesn’t go backward. But former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant Patrick Crakes, for one, does not see the NFL turning the Super Bowl into a cheesy PPV money grab.

“I know more than a little about boxing and MMA as both TV products and PPV and the comparisons to the NFL—even the Super Bowl—just aren’t there,” he tells FOS. “For example, the entire Taylor Swift phenomena would be hard to develop organically over an entire season culminating at the Super Bowl if you excluded any part of the general market. I just don’t see the PPV model being applicable here for the main telecast.”

Hey, Look at Me!

One thing we’ve noticed about Super Bowl week: Rival media giants often try to upstage the broadcaster lucky enough to carry the Big Game. It happened again Tuesday. At 2:30 p.m. PT, CBS was scheduled to trot out its entire executive/talent team for a Super Bowl dog and pony show. What do you know, only 45 minutes before that, Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros. Discovery announced they were launching a sports streaming service in the U.S. that would offer the NFL, NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, NASCAR, college sports, UFC, PGA Tour golf, Grand Slam tennis, and the FIFA World Cup. Both ESPN (through Disney) and Fox are rival NFL media partners of CBS. So now the headlines today and tomorrow will be about what they’re doing in the coming months rather than the Tiffany network’s Super Bowl plans this week. We spoke to a couple of TV executives who were suspicious about the timing, but they declined to go on the record.

Mike Drops

The Super Bowl may be in Las Vegas, but don’t look for Romo, Nantz, and Wolfson to address betting lines on CBS’s telecast of the Chiefs-49ers game, according to McManus. “If people really want in-depth gambling information, the CBS broadcast is not the place to get it. There is research that says if you start to populate a lot of gambling information, that it really does turn off the nongambler. We don’t want to do that.” … Fox Sports’ Saturday night telecast of Caitlin Clark and Iowa’s win over Maryland averaged 1.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched women’s college hoops game in the network’s history. … Sports-talk veteran Jim Rome announced Tuesday that the simulcast of his radio show will move from CBS Sports Network to X (formerly Twitter).

—Michael McCarthy’s “Tuned In” column is at your fingertips every week with the latest insights and ongoings around sports media. If he hears it, you will, too.

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