Q. I can’t believe that DIRECTV is finally selling the Sunday Ticket without having to subscribe to DIRECTV. I’ve been waiting for this forever. Why did they change? Isn’t the whole point of having the Sunday Ticket for DIRECTV is to make people subscribe to DIRECTV?! — Sean, South Bend, Indiana. 

Sean, that’s a great question! But first, let me offer some background for our readers who are not familiar with the story.

DIRECTV is now selling a streaming version of the NFL Sunday Ticket to non-DIRECTV subscribers in 29 select markets. The 29 markets include the home cities for 26 of the 32 NFL teams. (You can see more details here in our exclusive article.)

AT&T, which owns DIRECTV, says the Sunday Ticket’s terms of agreement (yes, the fine print) has stated for years that consumers in ‘select markets’ are eligible to buy the streaming Sunday Ticket without a DIRECTV subscription. However, neither AT&T or DIRECTV has ever publicly acknowledged this fact until now, or mentioned it in marketing and promotional materials for the Sunday Ticket.

DIRECTV said repeatedly that the only way to buy the Sunday Ticket — without a DIRECTV subscription — was if you were a college student, or you could prove that you could not get DIRECTV at your residence.

If you could get DIRECTV at your residence, you were out of luck. Or so we were all led (misled?) to believe. Time and time again.

In fact, I asked AT&T last year if non-DIRECTV subscribers who could get DIRECTV at their residences would be eligible for the streaming Ticket for the 2019 season. An AT&T spokesperson told me that the company didn’t have the rights to offer that feature.

If DIRECTV was allowing some non-subscribers to sign up for the Ticket, it kept that very quiet. And it’s big news to millions of football fans who have long wanted to subscribe to the Ticket without a DIRECTV subscription.

So why is AT&T now suddenly volunteering that you can subscribe to the online Sunday Ticket without DIRECTV? (As opposed to denying it has the rights to do so?)

Two reasons:

1. DIRECTV Is In Rapid Decline
AT&T has said that it no longer plans to actively market DIRECTV, except in certain rural and outer suburban areas. Noting that DIRECTV has lost between 5-6 million subscribers since 2015, AT&T believes satellite TV’s days are numbered, and that streaming is the future (and present) of television.

Consequently, the company is not as motivated to use the Sunday Ticket as leverage to generate DIRECTV subscriptions. At this point, it’s all about generating as much revenue as possible. And if opening up the Sunday Ticket to more non-DIRECTV subscribers will do that, it’s worth it even if it means fewer DIRECTV subscribers.

Now that doesn’t mean AT&T is totally ignoring DIRECTV here. Consumers who live within a city limits, or a nearby suburb of that city, are more likely to be ruled eligible.  AT&T does not think those areas are DIRECTV strongholds any longer so it’s more comfortable offering the streaming Ticket there. There are a significant number of consumers interested in the football package who wouldn’t sign up for DIRECTV under any circumstance, in AT&T’s view.

But if you live 20 or 30 miles (or more) from a major city — places where AT&T still thinks it can sell DIRECTV successfully — you are more likely to be deemed ineligible to subscribe.

2. AT&T Wants to Gauge Streaming’s Potential
As media consultant (and former Fox Sports executive) Patrick Crakes has noted on Twitter, the NFL will likely license a streaming version of the Sunday Ticket after DIRECTV’s exclusive contract with the league expires in 2022. By allowing more people to sign up for the online Ticket, AT&T can better gauge its potential to determine whether it should bid for the streaming rights.

The company is uniquely positioned to evaluate the wisdom of such a bid, and expanding the subscriber base can significantly aid that effort.

Sean, hope that helps explain the situation. Happy viewing, and stay safe!

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— Phillip Swann