The 2021 NFL season began Thursday night, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football. On Sunday, the league will present a full slate of games, which like every other season since 1994, will be available to subscribers of NFL Sunday Ticket. For its entire history, that package has been almost entirely exclusive to subscribers to DirecTV.
For most of the last year, and especially after AT&T succeeded in spinning off DirecTV, there has been much speculation that DirecTV is unlikely to keep those exclusive rights. The deal is reportedly set to run out after the 2022 season.
A report this week stated that ESPN and its parent company Disney are in the bidding for the Sunday Ticket package. ESPN’s chairman, Jimmy Pitaro, said in an interview with Bloomberg this week that ESPN has had exploratory talks for the Sunday Ticket package.
However, another report Friday, by CNBC, stated that Amazon is also “in talks” for Sunday Ticket and is “seen as the front-runner by others involved in talks with the league.” This would follow Amazon’s deal earlier this year to become the exclusive rightsholder for the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package.
CNBC added that the NFL is expected to ask for $2-2.5 billion per year and is hoping to finish the discussions before the end of the current NFL season. DirecTV has been paying about $1.5 billion per year for the package as part of an extension that was a condition of the government approving the AT&T purchase of DirecTV in 2016.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a CNBC interview this week that the Sunday Ticket package will “maybe will be more attractive on a digital platform,” while adding that he hopes for one bidder to emerge as “one strategic partner to acquire not only ‘Sunday Ticket’ rights but to also invest in NFL Network, which airs NFL content all year, and NFL RedZone.”
As for the “new” DirecTV, CNBC said that DirecTV “is still considering its options but may not have the balance sheet to compete” with tech giants that have a lot more money to throw around.
Meanwhile, The Athletic asked some NFL business experts for their opinions on various topics, and the fate of Sunday Ticket came up.
“The Sunday Ticket package is most likely to go non-exclusive. Given the focus on sports wagering that FuboTV has, I’d put them in the running as a non-exclusive offering,” Sam Thompson, managing partner, Progress Partners, told the site.
“Beyond that, a YouTubeTV offering comes through as well, but this would be less likely. Streaming services are also recognizing that content drives adoption. Amazon has already shown interest in the NFL, and given the momentum of Disney+, there is a solid case to bolster the Disney/ESPN streaming audience with the broad appeal of Sunday Ticket. Finally, I’d put the other major satellite and cable carriers on the list: a return to DirecTV, and then add on Comcast and Verizon. An exclusive for the Sunday Ticket seems out of reach, so it’s safe to say that some combination of the platforms listed above will bring the offering to market.”
Patrick Crakes, TV consultant, and former Fox Sports executive, said in the same article that he expects the rights to stay with DirecTV.
“Right now the NFL gets $1.5 billion by being exclusive to DirecTV, which allows DirecTV to treat it as a marketing expense. You have to get DirecTV if you want it. There are 2 million subs inside the DirecTV universe; about a million of them, 50 percent, get it for free, either as an acquisition or retention tool. So that’s how that fee gets generated today … This product isn’t what it used to be. It’s like it’s the fifth-best game on TV.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.