The National Football League last week announced a slew of new agreements for the TV rights to such prestigious properties as Thursday Night Football, Monday Night Football and Sunday Night Football as well as Sunday afternoon games.
There were no major surprises except possibly awarding exclusive out-of-market coverage for the Thursday night games to Amazon. But perhaps the biggest surprise to some was that the league did not address who would get the next contract to carry arguably the most coveted package of all, the NFL Sunday Ticket. (This was a definite surprise to at least one radio host.)
NFL executives said that, for now, the package remains with DIRECTV, which has carried it exclusively since its launch in 1994. But the league is expected to soon ramp up talks for the next Sunday Ticket agreement with DIRECTV’s deal set to expire after the 2022 season.
Will DIRECTV lose the Sunday Ticket after 2022? If so, which company will carry it?
The TV Answer Man has assessed the playing field and compiled an odds board for the major companies thought to be interested in securing the rights.
However, before we reveal the odds, a prediction on an important question that must be answered before the Sunday Ticket talks can get serious.
Will the Sunday Ticket be an exclusive after 2022?
As noted previously, DIRECTV has had the Sunday Ticket as an exclusive since 1994, meaning no other pay TV provider can offer it. But the TV landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years with the emergence of streaming which has helped trigger a steady decline in cable and satellite TV sub numbers. It’s difficult to envision a pay TV company such as DIRECTV paying what it would take now to keep the Sunday Ticket as an exclusive. (DIRECTV paid $12 billion for eight years of the Sunday Ticket back in late 2014. The 2021 equivalent for an exclusive could be close to twice that amount.)
With the likelihood that a single company won’t pay the premium price for an exclusive, the NFL will want the Sunday Ticket to be available to as many people as possible. That means it will likely be offered via both a streaming service and a traditional pay TV operator.
So which companies have the best chance of securing a slice of the Ticket after 2022?
ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro acknowledged last week after the NFL’s new agreements were announced that his company is interested in discussing the next Sunday Ticket contract when the league is ready to talk. Despite ESPN (owned by Disney) already spending a fortune to retain Monday Night Football, and secure Super Bowl broadcasts in 2027 and 2031, the company is motivated to shell out even more for the Ticket to help generate subscribers for ESPN+, its streaming service. The package of out-of-market games would set ESPN+ apart from other sports streamers such as DAZN, or general streamers who offer sports such as Peacock.
Amazon showed the industry how serious it is about live sports when it agreed to pay more than $1 billion a year for the Thursday Night Football rights. And the e-commerce giant has plenty more where that came from thanks in part to surging sales due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Amazon would become an instant sports giant if it won the exclusive Sunday Ticket streaming rights starting in 2023 and I suspect it will do everything it can to squeeze out ESPN+ for the contract.
The nation’s largest cable TV company has a host of resources (and motivations) to make a serious bid for the Sunday Ticket. Comcast could use it to generate subs for Peacock, its new national streaming service, for its cable TV service, which is available in 40 states, and Flex, its new streaming device that’s now available only in Comcast markets but could be expanded nationally with the Sunday Ticket as a feature. If there’s a company that could pull off getting the Sunday Ticket as an exclusive, Comcast is the one. The company could offer the plan to an overwhelming majority of Americans via streaming or cable.
Some analysts have dismissed the satcaster’s interest in retaining the Sunday Ticket rights because AT&T plans to establish it as a separate company with 30 percent owned by a private equity firm, TPG. But both TPG and AT&T want to build value for DIRECTV in the hope that they could sell it in a few years, most likely to satellite rival Dish. Retaining the pay TV rights to the Sunday Ticket would help DIRECTV keep current subscribers and possibly generate new ones. And unlike 2014 when it purchased the exclusive rights, DIRECTV wouldn’t have to pay as much to get the pay TV rights.
One other factor: DIRECTV also sells the Sunday Ticket to restaurants and bars, and it would still be uniquely positioned to do so after 2022. (A streaming company could have some issues here.) That alone could help DIRECTV win a portion of the next Ticket. And if it wasn’t enough, DIRECTV’s audience includes a large number of rural residents who don’t have access to high-speed Internet service. If the Sunday Ticket is a streaming exclusive in 2023, the league could lose a significant number of rural viewers.
Google owns YouTube and YouTube TV, which could both benefit from offering the Sunday Ticket as a streaming exclusive. But the company’s once active interest in sports seems to have waned in the last year or so; perhaps a little sticker shock when it discovered how often (and how much) the leagues (and sports channels) raise their prices.
Likewise, Apple’s expected foray in live sports to bolster Apple TV+ hasn’t happened. I don’t see it suddenly turning on a dime for the Sunday Ticket.
The sports streaming service has an impressive executive lineup with former Disney exec Kevin Mayer as chairman and former ESPN chief John Skinner as executive chairman. But to date, it has talked a better game than it has played. The Sunday Ticket is out of its weight class.
I only have the world’s largest streaming service on the odds board because…it’s the world’s largest streaming service. Netflix has the money to do anything it wants despite its frequent denials of being interested in pursuing live sports deals. Highly unlikely, but never say never with Netflix.
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— Phillip Swann