The origins of the NFL’s streaming business can be traced, in part, to a party at Bill Gates’ house outside of Seattle several years ago. The event was timed to a summit that Microsoft was hosting, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recalls chatting with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos there. “I was just talking about our content and what it could do for their technology,” Goodell says, noting that he felt the NFL could help Amazon build its advertising business and Prime Video subscription service. “I distinctly remember, he was wearing sunglasses and he put them down on the end of his nose,” Goodell adds. “And he said, ‘Now you’ve got my attention.’ ”
Amazon would go on to cut a deal to simulcast Thursday Night Football games beginning in 2017 and, last season, took over the package exclusively. It marked the most significant bet by a major sports league on streaming when it was signed in 2021, and provided a glimpse at the blueprint for the league’s future.
But Amazon’s arrival into the NFL business in 2017 came amid a challenging time for the league, to say the least. Think back to when pro football and concussions became a national story after the 2013 documentary and book League of Denial suggested that the NFL looked the other way and cast doubt on research amid mounting evidence of a medical, PR and legal crisis. The league would go on to settle a lawsuit brought by former players over concussion-related brain injuries that year for $765 million.
Then the NFL found itself in the middle of the Trump-era culture wars, with players (most notably Colin Kaepernick) kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. That, in turn, led the president to berate the league and its players, framing them as unpatriotic. (Kaepernick would opt out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 and would never play in another NFL game. He settled a grievance case against the league in 2019 after alleging that collusion kept him off the field.)
It was an uncomfortable position for the NFL to find itself in — and also for Goodell, who had been at the helm as commissioner since 2006. Says Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief media and business officer, “We’ve always prided ourselves on the fact that this is one of the last things in a fractured country that people can get around and enjoy together.”
The NFL responded by instituting more aggressive concussion protocols, as well as new equipment (like helmets) meant to lower the risks. It has also leaned into flag football as a way to make the game more accessible, even changing the format of the Pro Bowl this year to culminate in a flag football game, responding to concerns of injury risk in the all-star event.
While still a TV juggernaut, the league’s ratings fell by 8 percent during the 2016-2017 season, and a further 9 percent the following season, sparking scrutiny from journalists and Wall Street analysts, who worried that the decline could impact media stocks. Ratings began to turn around in the 2018 season, though concerns about cord-cutting and the changing media business would go on to influence the league’s media strategy.
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In March 2020, a delegation of senior NFL officials — including Goodell and Rolapp — met with top YouTube executives at its headquarters in San Bruno, California. Execs for the league had been journeying to Silicon Valley for years, trying to keep up with the latest technology and maintaining a dialogue with the industry’s power players. “We’ve always felt like it was our responsibility to go learn from the best and the people that are at the center of that,” Goodell says of the frequent trips. Recalls YouTube CEO Neal Mohan, “[It was] one of those meetings that we like to do on a regular basis to check in on each other’s businesses.”
The NFL was beginning to think about its next round of TV rights negotiations, and execs believed that a tech giant might be interested in coming aboard. Amazon had the simulcast TNF games that also ran on some linear channels, but at that point the league had yet to sell a live games package exclusively for streaming.
By the time the NFL contingent had landed in New York a couple days later, the world was shutting down because of COVID-19, which dramatically changed the media landscape. Cord-cutting accelerated and consumers flocked to streaming services by the millions. It served, Rolapp says, as a “seminal moment” for how the league approached its media agreements.
In May 2021 came the blizzard of deals: Exclusive live games went to current partners NBCUniversal, Disney/ESPN, Paramount, Fox and, in a first for a tech company, Amazon. The total value of those rights over the course of their 11-year span? $110 billion, the richest set of pacts in the history of pro sports. A year and a half later, in December 2022, YouTube would join the party, securing the rights to the NFL’s out-of-market Sunday Ticket package, paying a reported $2 billion annually for the privilege.
“The technology is changing. The platforms are changing. The economy is changing. We have to be ahead of that strategy at all times so that we are where our fans are, on the platforms they want to be on,” Goodell says of the rights deals.
It helps that the NFL has reasserted itself as the dominant force in live TV. Of the top 100 most watched TV broadcasts in 2022, 88 were NFL games, including 23 of the top 25, per Nielsen. The league is able to accumulate eyeballs in a way that no one else on TV can match, in turn making it a precious commodity for its rights partners that are seeking to sell that scale to their marketing clients.
That reach is a big reason why the NFL has been able to draw rights fees that are unprecedented in their scale and scope. (By comparison: The NBA is at the tail end of a $24 billion rights deal with Disney and Turner, signed in 2014, that runs through the 2024-25 season.) “The media [deals are] our main source of revenue,” notes Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and chairman of the league’s media committee. “We’re always trying to think long-term and strategic and making sure we’re doing the right thing by our players, and making sure that we’re presenting in a way that our fans want to stay connected to it.”
Cord-cutting has taken its toll — about 100 million pay TV subscribers in 2015 have eroded to about 77 million as of this year, per a Wells Fargo tally — but last season Fox delivered the most watched regular-season game in NFL history, with the Dallas Cowboys beating the New York Giants on Thanksgiving Day, notching more than 42 million viewers, and the most watched Super Bowl, with more than 115 million viewers seeing the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Philadelphia Eagles. Pay TV might be collapsing, but the NFL sure isn’t. The league, Goodell argues, is “essential to building an ad-supported platform.”
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Television’s upfront week in May is usually filled with spectacle and flash. Media buyers and advertisers trek from one midtown Manhattan venue to the next, where the major media companies try to wow them with sizzle reels, celebrities and musical performances.
The WGA strike, which hit just days before the upfronts began May 18, threw a wrench in those plans, with networks unable to say for sure when shows would actually debut and actors skipping the events in solidarity. That uncertainty meant that the big throughline for the upfronts was the NFL. Every network that has a relationship with the league made sure media buyers knew about it. At the Manhattan Ballroom on 34th Street, while striking writers marched outside, Fox concluded its event by having NFL on Fox contributors Michael Strahan and Rob Gronkowski stand on a bar in the middle of the room and throw autographed footballs into the crowd.
At Disney’s upfront, held in a cavernous space at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the company made do without actors by leaning into its NFL and sports stars, with ESPN2 Manningcast host Peyton Manning and Serena Williams making appearances. It was the Monday Night Football duo of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, however, who received the only standing ovation of the week when they brought out Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, whose frightening collapse on the field in Cincinnati was chronicled live on their broadcast four months earlier and led to yet another debate on the safety of the game (Hamlin was revived by on-the-field medical staff, who are credited with saving his life).
At Disney’s afterparty, held in a similarly huge room upstairs, Hamlin, Buck and Aikman held court in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River, with a line of guests 30-deep hoping to get a few moments to talk with them.
With TV’s business in a holding pattern, the NFL has picked up the slack. And Goodell suggests that the actors and writers strikes could lead to its TV partners relying even more on NFL programming amid a relative dearth of scripted fare and a desire to keep ad dollars flowing. “NFL content is the best reality television going — I know people say I script the season, but I don’t,” he says. “There’s going to be opportunities during this period of time, which is unfortunate, but it exists, and I think our content is going to have more opportunities during this fall season. It’s reliable content, and it’s reliable from an advertising standpoint.”
While the NFL’s partnerships with Disney, Fox, Paramount, NBCUniversal, YouTube and Amazon are undeniably lucrative, they are also a “give-and-take,” Rolapp notes. The league wants the rights fees, of course, but it also wants reach. The partners, meanwhile, have interests of their own, including selling ads for top dollar against the NFL’s content. “We’re trying to unleash all of that innovation to make the NFL and our partners better,” Goodell says.
The biggest source of friction between the league and its partners remains the schedule. With a limited inventory of games (the NFL has a 17-game season, compared with 82 for the NBA and NHL and 162 for Major League Baseball), the league tries to divvy up the best matchups among its partners. Early in the season, every channel wants the compelling matchups, while later they seek games that have playoff implications. One solution has been the addition of “flex” scheduling, which moves a game from Sunday afternoon to primetime late in the season. NBC’s Sunday Night Football first received those rights in 2006, ESPN got them last year, and Amazon is set to get them next year.
The league’s focus on reach was forged by former commissioner Pete Rozelle, a onetime PR exec who ran the league from 1960 to 1989. At that time, “the NFL was far from the most popular sport in this country; college football was more popular, baseball, horse racing, boxing and others,” Rolapp says. “And I think a lot of it was [Rozelle] saw television and reach as a way to build a sport.” Splitting the regional AFC and NFC rights among networks and adding primetime national games like those on Monday nights played a big part in that effort.
The result is evident with its rights: The overwhelming majority of games are available on broadcast TV (at least in local markets), making them accessible to as many TV households as possible. Even ESPN, the NFL’s longtime cable TV partner, is adding more simulcasts than ever on ABC, while Paramount has created Nickelodeon versions of games with kid-friendly announcers, CG slime and special effects for family viewing — there will even be one for the Super Bowl this year — and Amazon is prepping its first “Black Friday” game. “It’s an opportunity to create a new sports holiday where it’s football, it’s shopping, it’s family,” Amazon VP of U.S. sports content and partnerships Marie Donoghue says. “We’re going to have some new innovations and other entertainment around the game.”
It’s a contrast to the NBA, which has split its rights exclusively between Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney/ESPN, which limits their national games to one broadcast network; as well as MLB, which counts Fox Sports and WBD as its primary partners (again, only one broadcast network), and has also sold off packages to Apple and Peacock, making some games a challenge to find.
Notes LightShed Partners analyst Rich Greenfield: “The NFL has done a very good job of trying to extend rather than replace. Every media company needs to focus on the reach of their content. I don’t think anyone’s done a better job expanding reach than the NFL.”
Acutely aware of the challenges facing linear TV, the league also is trying to help its partners make their streaming businesses work. “The landscape is changing from a media standpoint. Our partners who are shifting also are increasingly seeking streaming alternatives,” Goodell adds.
That means simulcasts on services like Peacock, Paramount+ and ESPN+, but with the new rights deals, it also gives them the ultimate prize: exclusive games, a significant deal to reach streaming audiences outside of local markets. Amazon, in many ways, has paved the way.
“That was our biggest concern — can you handle that many people at one time?” Goodell says of the Amazon deal. “That’s always a concern with these platforms. And fortunately, they’ve all invested dramatically and proved they can do that.” Streaming tech might have been an uncertain bet a few years ago, but it’s a safer play now (as it happens, Amazon Web Services already works with all of the NFL’s media partners).
“I don’t think I could see us taking all of our playoffs and putting it on a digital platform, but making real commitments with valuable inventory we thought is a good way to go,” Rolapp adds. “We want NBC to be successful with Peacock because it further achieves the reach thesis that we have, and them having a successful legacy television business, but also a digital business, is in our best interest.”
In the case of Peacock’s games (including a Wild Card game, the first playoff contest exclusive to streaming), executives are quick to note that in the local markets of the respective teams, the games will also air on the local NBC station. And for both exclusives, the Peacock contests will be the second half of a doubleheader, with NBC using its broadcast opener to push viewers to streaming for the game that follows.
“Being a very progressive media company — as the NFL is and as we are — we had a lot of things that we were trying to solve in common,” NBCU media group chairman Mark Lazarus says. “Driving an NFL audience from one game to the next across another platform is something that we truly believed would benefit us and help prove the value of streaming to the NFL.”
ESPN+ had its first exclusive NFL game from London last year and will add another this season. “The idea here is just a constant focus on how we can expand the audience, how can we broaden the scope of where NFL games are available, how can we create this rising tide in terms of fandom,” says ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro. “It is a priority we want to deliver for the ESPN+ platform, but we also want to deliver for the NFL here.”
Manningcast is a good example, with Pitaro noting that its average viewer (48) is five years younger than those taking in the main broadcast (53). The Peyton and Eli Manning production, as it happens, also traces its origins to the pandemic. “We had some of our analysts covering games from home, from their basements,” Pitaro recalls. “And Peyton Manning called me and he said, ‘Hey, is this something that I could potentially do on the NFL side?’ And I immediately said yes.”
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At Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on May 17, Goodell walked onto the stage alongside the YouTube creator Deestroying (real name: Donald De La Haye) to tout the platform as the new home for Sunday Ticket, three years after that meeting in San Bruno. “It’s been a partnership and relationship that has been years in the making,” Mohan says (though he notes that Sunday Ticket didn’t actually come up at that fateful March 2020 meeting).
Goodell says the possibility of YouTube bidding for Sunday Ticket had been discussed over the years at the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, at playoff games and at Google’s Zeitgeist conference. It culminated at YouTube’s Brandcast event at Lincoln Center, with the league choosing to embrace the creator economy.
Goodell’s segment onstage ended in a show of force only YouTube could deliver, with the commissioner handing off to arguably the platform’s most successful content creator: MrBeast (real name: Jimmy Donaldson), who promised that the partnership marked “a whole new era for NFL content on YouTube,” owing to the expanded access the league will give creators. On Aug. 25, MrBeast launched a contest in conjunction with the league, giving away Sunday Ticket subscriptions and a trip to the 2024 Super Bowl in Las Vegas.
“That’s the power of YouTube that the NFL to their credit recognized, especially for young fans all over the country and, frankly, also all over the world,” Mohan says, adding that lifestyle, food and gaming creators — not just sports content channels — have reached out. “Creators are going to have access to game-day content — you can imagine them producing content that is shoulder content, so not just what’s on the field but behind the scenes.”
Goodell notes that the YouTube talent bring “another perspective of looking at the NFL” and the “extraordinary reach that they have with their followers.”
The heart of YouTube’s new deal with the NFL might be Sunday Ticket and its wider availability, but it is also a broader bet on the future of football consumption and advertising.
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During an earlier working trip to Silicon Valley in mid-2007, NFL executives gathered at the Cupertino campus of Apple Inc. The company’s latest creation, the iPhone, had just been released. The executives, including Goodell, met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who implored them to outfit their stadiums with Wi-Fi. “That sounds so pedestrian now, but that was expensive,” Rolapp recalls, adding that Jobs told them that his latest product would change the world: “Mobile connectivity will not be optional, everybody will expect it, and it will be ubiquitous.”
Sixteen years later, the league is betting that it can build a billion-dollar business on the now-ubiquitous technology that Jobs unleashed. And yes, all the stadiums have Wi-Fi.
In a surprising announcement Aug. 10, the NFL said it would bring its pay TV channels, NFL Network and RedZone, to its NFL+ direct-to-consumer streaming service. NFL+, which launched in 2022, had previously combined live audio of all NFL games as well as live video of local games exclusively on the iPhone and other mobile devices.
The addition of NFL Network and RedZone (on any device) means that, for the first time, the sports channels are available without a pay TV subscription, at a cost of $6.99 to $14.99 a month. It is no small bet. NFL Network is in more than 51 million homes, according to Nielsen, and generates more than $2 a subscriber, per S&P Kagan, second among sports channels only to ESPN.
That’s more than $1.2 billion in annual revenue from cable carriage fees that the league is putting at risk. The pay TV fees aren’t vanishing overnight, but with cord-cutting continuing to grow every year, the value of those fees — for every channel — is declining as well.
Goodell says that the league had been contemplating the move for “several years.” It wasn’t until this summer when the league cleared enough distribution deals, giving them the right to take its NFL Network direct. “Our model tries to thread that needle of being really strong and maintaining that presence on pay TV but increasing the access beyond,” says Hans Schroeder, executive vp and COO of NFL Media.
“It’s a DNA shift, for sure,” says David Jurenka, senior vp at NFL Media, adding that users of NFL+ are, on average, 10 to 15 years younger than those that watch the network on pay TV. The service already has “millions” of subscribers, per Jurenka, and NFL Network and RedZone are likely to further turbocharge that number.
For the league, NFL+ is a gateway to the future, a place where the next generation of NFL fans can gather, with the league able to take the risk of building it thanks to those lucrative media rights deals. It’s also a disruptive shift in business models, and everyone in the pay TV ecosystem is paying close attention.
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The direct-to-consumer push underscores the league’s desire to be everywhere, plus its desire to have more control over its content. The result is a growing landscape of NFL Films projects on platforms like Netflix (where Quarterback, which followed three quarterbacks, including Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes, during the 2022-23 season, found its way to the No. 1 spot in July) and the Roku Channel, where it debuted a behind-the-scenes look at the NFL Draft on Aug. 25 (the draft show was renewed Aug. 28).
It’s a bet on the growing business of sports docs, sure, but it’s also an opportunity to craft the perceptions of the league and its players, with the tightly edited documentaries and docuseries blanketing streaming services built around (mostly) league-approved drama. It’s a strategy that can be traced to HBO’s Hard Knocks, the deep dive into training camp for a different team each season that debuted in 2001 when “it was just us and I think Survivor and The Real World,” says Ross Ketover, senior executive at NFL Films.
Getting a taste of the personal lives of players is good for burnishing their own images — and the league’s. (It helps that among the personalities promoted are the likes of Mahomes, drama-free and a two-time Super Bowl champion). It also happens to appeal to people who may not have as much interest in the games. “We’re trying to bring as many people into that ecosystem and to that NFL fandom as possible, and nongame content is a very effective way to do that,” Goodell says. “Interestingly enough, Hard Knocks has always done incredibly well with women because I think they like to see the story, they like to see the struggle, they like to see the challenges, they like to see where these players came from, they like to get to know them on a more personal basis.”
It’s storytelling and brand-building that Hollywood knows all too well. Of course, that doesn’t mean things always go as planned. In an interview on the golf course at the American Century Championship July 12, New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers expressed frustration that his team was selected for the new season of Hard Knocks.
“They forced it down our throats and we have to deal with it,” the quarterback said, adding that he understood why they were selected. “Obviously, there are a lot of eyes on me, a lot of eyes on our team, a lot of expectations for our squad.” The only thing Rodgers liked about Hard Knocks, he said “is the voice of God, the man who narrates it, Liev [Schreiber].”
The team at NFL Films took that as a challenge. “We helicoptered [Schreiber] into the Jets facility, and they spent some time together,” Ketover says. “You know, if Aaron’s going to cooperate with us, we want to help make some of his dreams come true too.”
It’s that desire to help control the message and build a year-round content business that played into the league’s desire to partner with Skydance Sports on a new studio venture, which launched late last year.
Post-ESPN’s The Last Dance, it seems like every player and league wants a piece of the action too, including the ability to help craft their own narratives.
“We want creatives from around the industry and players who want to tell their stories to say, ‘Well, I can go out and shop it and try to find a partner, or I can go to the place that really knows how to get this stuff made and sold,’” Ketover says. “I think having a partner in Skydance that has those connections, especially through Hollywood, opens a lot more doors.”
“Let’s work with a company that’s great at that, and we can then also own the IP and control the message,” he adds.
The JV is still in its early months, but Ketover says the goal is to combine an increase in documentary projects (20 to 30 per year) with films and TV series, citing potential projects like a scripted film about Vince Lombardi, and kids’ TV shows.
“I feel like we’ve been getting random submissions for a history of the National Football League series for years,” Ketover says. “Well, now we can hire the right producers, the right screenwriters, the right directors to do that.”
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The NFL’s strategy of ubiquity and reach, combined with a desire to help drag the TV business into the streaming future, has echoes to its past. For execs at the league, the current state of play bears a striking similarity to the late 1980s, when it saw the rise of cable TV and cut deals for live games on ESPN and later TNT, bringing new bidders into the fold, and when it partnered with Rupert Murdoch to expand the U.S. media market with Fox, which built its broadcast business on sports rights deals and expanded to cable news.
“We were a big part of the growth of broadcast TV — it was a mutually beneficial relationship. We reached a much broader audience, and it helped them develop to the point where we even developed a fourth network with Fox in the early ’90s. And that wasn’t just a sports network, that was a network,” Goodell says. “Now it’s streaming, and I think a large part of that is advertising and subscription and dual revenue streams, and that’s the case here.”
Now, as with then, broadcast TV is a backbone of the distribution strategy. But streaming is the new rising force, and with it comes new opportunities, be it Amazon debuting targeted advertising for the first time in NFL games this year, or YouTube’s creator push. “Clearly that’s where a lot of the growth is coming from,” Schroeder says, noting that the league wants to be in both places. “I think everybody has a good crystal ball, but nobody has a perfect one.”
But just as cable bundled all of sports and entertainment in one place, executives at the league are already wondering if a similar reckoning is coming for streaming. “I might pay a premium as a consumer if you could just make it easier. And I don’t know if that’s going to be ESPN, I don’t know if Apple is going to figure out a presentation layer that everyone’s going to want,” Rolapp says. “I think at some point, the consumer is going to demand it, and not everyone who distributes directly to consumer over the top is going to survive.”
In this uncertain landscape, the league wants to bring as many partners along for the ride as it can. “I think the NFL has taken a leadership position,” Goodell says when asked whether other leagues will emulate them. “It comes back to this idea of partnering with the best in class, aligning our interests and unleashing not just the technology, but the power of these platforms, and the opportunity to engage our fans greater.”
It’s a media strategy forged out of uncertainty. Uncertainty of what will happen to the lucrative pay TV business, uncertainty around which partners will survive and which will thrive over the coming decade, and uncertainty about what platforms football fans will be consuming most of their content on.
In order for the NFL to stay on top of the sports heap, it needs to remain relevant, present and accessible to consumers, both to existing fans, and the next generation that hasn’t been exposed to it yet,
“We’ve stolen the Andy Grove quote,” Rolapp adds, something of an unofficial mantra for the league. In his 1996 book about leadership, Grove — the former Intel CEO — laid out his thesis for building a lasting business: “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.”
Adds Patriots owner Kraft, “Our real objective is to have football always remain paramount in the nation’s psyche.”
A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.