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How the NFL and Silicon Valley are primed to blitz cable TV

Mark Sullivan | Aug. 27, 2013
Verizon already has a football deal. What happens if Google and Apple pile on, too?


Oof. That was the sound of Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh laying out another quarterback. It may also be the sound that cable and satellite TV executives made last week when they heard news that Google is talking to the NFL about buying the rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket package, and that ESPN has been talking directly to several online video players (likely including Apple) about licensing ESPN shows.

This news comes just a couple of months after another scary hit on the cable and satellite operators—when Verizon announced it would be delivering live, home-market pro football games to its smartphone customers, through a $1 billion deal it made directly with the National Football League.

Direct content deals between powerful sports leagues and Silicon Valley upstarts could produce career-ending injuries for the Comcasts and DirectTVs of the world, since their businesses depend in large part on long-held sports broadcasting rights agreements.

In fact, we might be witnessing the beginning of the end of Monday Night Football as we know it. Ten years from now, NFL games—TV's biggest cash cow—might come riding into the living room on a broadband pipe (maybe wired, maybe wireless), and not via a cable or satellite link.

Is the technology in place to cut the cable and satellite providers out of the equation? Does Google have the juice to line up head-to-head with big players like the TV networks and Comcast? And are the NFL and other sports leagues powerful enough to cut out the middlemen entirely?

TV industry insiders think so. "Yes, NFL and MLB and other leagues do have this kind of clout," says media consultant Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group. "They want audience, and if they can get $5 a stream on their own, they will—on the way to trying for $50 a stream."

But before we get too excited about à la carte football games, let's take a look at what you can and cannot do with Verizon's service for the 2013—2014 NFL season.

Football on the phone
Verizon Wireless customers who buy the NFL Mobile app can already watch Sunday, Monday, and Thursday night games—and starting in 2014 they'll be able to watch live coverage of their local team's games. The app works only on select smartphones, however, not on tablets. The television networks retain the exclusive right to broadcast local games on TV, and cable and satellite operators retain the right to stream game coverage to tablets and laptops.

Verizon Wireless customers will also get the league-owned channel, NFL Network, and its NFL RedZone show (featuring the day's touchdowns), along with postseason games, including the Super Bowl. They can watch this programming over a 3G, 4G, or Wi-Fi connection, Verizon says. Of course, gorging yourself on football via a 3G or 4G connection can quickly chew up your plan's monthly data allotment. Verizon customers should plan to stream sparingly.


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