AT&T is in talks to sell its DirecTV subsidiary, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. The satellite TV company has been bleeding subscribers, including over 800,000 in each of the year’s first two quarters, while the CEO who presided over the merger has retired and the company has clearly moved on to other priorities, from the launch of HBO Max to the rollout of 5G.
What does DirecTV still have going for it, for whichever private equity firm or other entity ends up purchasing it? The service still brings in cash from its remaining subscribers, while it also maintains exclusivity for NFL Sunday Ticket, the pro football league’s package of out-of-market games. In the U.S., for as long as there’s been Sunday Ticket, it’s only been available on DirecTV, so if you want it, you pretty much have to remain a DirecTV subscriber. This has kept a lot of households, and also bars and restaurants that show the games, on the DirecTV subscriber rolls.
Could that be coming to an end eventually? The current exclusive deal between the NFL and DirecTV extends through 2022, as the government insisted on that deal being in place as a condition for its approval of the AT&T/DirecTV merger. However, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said that he would prefer Sunday Ticket become more widely available.
So, once the exclusive deal is up, the NFL could essentially kick off a bidding war as to who gets Sunday Ticket, which could include every single deep-pocketed tech or entertainment company: Netflix, Amazon, Comcast, Disney, Apple, and more. Many of them, including Disney, Comcast, and Fox, are already in business with the NFL.
Also, Sunday Ticket could become available non-exclusively, allowing users to get the package multiple ways. That’s how the equivalent packages, including MLB Extra Innings, have worked for the last few years, although Extra Innings for the first five years of its existence was also exclusive to DirecTV.
What would that mean for DirecTV? Probably nothing good. Any slipping of its exclusivity would likely cause the service is bleed even more subscribers, as both residential and business customers realize they can still get the valuable NFL package through other means. And the possibility of that happening is likely factored in to the negotiations currently taking place over the purchase of the service.
In recent years, DirecTV has been offering Sunday Ticket to consumers in areas where DirecTV is not available, as well as those who meet certain other conditions. The website TV Answer Man reported earlier this summer that the availability has been increased to additional markets, although DirecTV recently denied any changes in the availability to Variety.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to 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.