Last week, the NFL media rights story went from “potential” to “actual” news. (The latter happens, the former is rumors.) Not to toot my own horn, but I wrote last week that the Disney-NHL deal would set the template for the NFL deal (and all future rights deals). And I was right.
That’s our story of the week, which is a bit delayed because, frankly, March Madness basketball slowed me down.
(Sign up for my newsletter to get my column and streaming ratings report delivered to your inbox.)
Most Important Story of the Week – The NFL Media Rights Grow 5.9% Per Year and Go Digital
Editorially, the NFL didn’t help me out. I had hoped the NFL would take a few more weeks to finish these deals, so my weekly column wouldn’t cover sports two weeks in a row. Last week’s column explored the strategic issues for all parts of the digital video value chain. This week, I’d like to provide a bit of context to the specific numbers for the NFL, speculate about the two remaining wild cards in the NFL media rights package, and give my overall thesis. In short, a bit of an “odds and ends” column.
Bottom Line: This Deal Isn’t “Earth-Shattering”, But “Evolutionary”
The NFL signed a big rights deal that we all knew was coming, and most observers assumed that all the major linear channels (Viacom, Fox and Disney) would insist on digital rights as well. Which is the deal we got. Did this stop some outlets from hyperventilating that this deal would “end the bundle as we know it”?
Of course not.
Will it? Not really. If “earth-shattering” means to figuratively have the Earth break apart like Alderaan in Star Wars, then this deal is not that. Unfortunately for narratives, most business trends resemble the slow but steady movement of the continents rather than earth-destroying super lasers.
For the vast majority of customers, they can (and will) watch TV mostly how they have before. Amidst this, TV consumption is slowly changing, as more Americans cut the cord. More but not all. As I often remind readers, though, this rate is still in the single digits percentage-wise. In 2021, cable “only” lost 6 million subscribers. Yes, this is a shrinking business, but the majority of TV viewers use cable or satellite to access TV.
This deal matches that slow evolution, not the online narrative. Since many customers are digital-only, the NFL needs to reach them, and ESPN+, Paramount+, Prime Video and Tubi provide that reach. But there are still so many traditional customers that the NFL can’t blow up the linear bundle entirely. Again, think “tectonic shifts” not “earth-shattering”.
(This is the “aggressively moderate” take versus the “headline-grabbing soundbite” take.)
Whither Sunday Ticket?
Partly, I’m a bit disappointed that Sunday Ticket, the subscription service that lets DirecTV customers watch every NFL game, hasn’t been awarded to a suitor. Given the sorry state of DirecTV’s finances—they were just spun off from AT&T—it’s unlikely they will renew this extremely expensive and exclusive contract.
So who grabs it? Amazon is often rumored, but likely the NFL has concerns that Amazon alone doesn’t have the reach to justify a deal. Neither would any one cable company, since no one cable company covers all of America. (That’s why the deal made so much sense for DirecTV, since every house was a potential customer.)
Hence, Sunday Ticket is a “wildcard”. I think that the NFL could actually generate more revenue by letting multiple MVPDs and OTTs sell it as an add-on, for a given upfront fee and splitting per customer revenue. (Say ESPN+, Apple TV+, Peacock, and Prime Video, plus any cable provider.) But that is much riskier for the NFL overall. The NFL prefers a big upfront paycheck, which may lend itself to one big (likely tech) player going all in. We’ll see which way they go.
Whither NFL Network?
One of the rumored sticking points in Thursday Night Football to Amazon was whether the deal was totally “exclusive”, meaning on every platform, or “digital exclusive”, meaning the only digital provider, as it was the last few years. The answer is the former, as TNF will leave its part-time home on the NFL Network. Losing an actual live sporting event will hurt the NFL Network’s negotiating position in the future, so conceding the point likely means the NFL knows the smaller linear sports channel’s days are numbered. Plus, Amazon doubled the price tag, which likely makes up for the loss.
That said, there is the caveat that in their Press Release, the NFL said the NFL Network will carry some games. Hmmm. It will be fascinating to see what and how often these games show up on the calendar:
Amazon Will Syndicate Airings to Local Broadcasters
That said, here’s a fun point: Amazon must syndicate rights to local markets for Thursday Night Football. That’s a footnote with big implications I didn’t see highlighted in the coverage!
In other words, if hypothetically the Los Angeles Rams play the Kansas City Chiefs, a local broadcaster like KTLA could buy the rights for Los Angeles. In fact, Amazon must sell the rights to someone. Same for Kansas City. Everywhere else? They have to go to Prime Video to watch that week’s games.
How much does this decrease the overall value? Somewhat. Diehard NFL fans will tune-in to Prime Video. But the casual fans, who only follow their team, will have a non-Amazon option, which does decrease the upside for Prime Video. Does this make it a bad deal for Prime Video? Probably not. They still need to convince people to use Prime Video on a regular basis, and sports offer that opportunity.
This isn’t a “108%” increase, but a “5.9%” per year increase.
Whenever a big sports deal is announced, the league loves to celebrate the huge increase in price. Often announcing it “doubled” the previous deal. What they fail to mention is that the previous deal took place ten years before, so it doubled over ten years, which is less impressive. Since 2010, the S&P 500, for example, has gone up 249%, so if a sports rights deal doubled in value, that’s less impressive than the just basic growth of the stock market!
I wrote about this before, here or here. How does this apply to the NFL? Well, the previous deals were signed in 2014, roughly, meaning 9 years. Using the prices per year—from this great Sportico article—the actual per year increase is from $5.67 billion to $9.46 billion. That’s a combined annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.9%, or an average growth rate of 7%. Still really, really good to grow revenue by 5.9% per year! But not nearly as eye-popping as 108% growth sounds.
For new readers, here’s the picture of what I call the “Video value Chain” in all its glory.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve written about the digital video value chain. Here it is, laid out in all its glory for those who don’t know:
What did the Twitterati have to say?
Every so often, I collect your thoughts on Twitter. Here are the best hot takes I found:
I’m submitting this tweet for your article https://t.co/A21cfdZAht
— Masa Capital (@MasaSonCap) March 19, 2021
Tubi, ESPN+, Paramount+ and Peacock – one of these is very different. Mention of Tubi in ability to simulcast seems like a throw in to avoid questions about Fox’s (lack of) paid streaming strategy
— hunter martin (@hunterrmartin) March 20, 2021
Context Update – Antitrust Heats Up as Biden Appoints Lina Khan to FTC
Mergers & acquisitions are fun to write about. You get to imagine two companies putting together their combined business heft and dominating a new industry, or presenting a unique new value proposition. Ignore how often the mergers fail to deliver the expected value in real life; on paper they’re fun! (Especially compared to building a real strategy, which is often much harder.)
This game was especially fun over the last four decades, as U.S. and global regulators mostly allowed every deal to pass through. (There are a few exceptions, like Comcast and Time Warner Cable and AT&T and Sprint, but they are vastly the exception.) But has the tide turned on antitrust? And does the business community have an accurate gauge on that yet?
Maybe not. That’s my outlier hypothesis right now. As I wrote last November, whether or not Democrats will fundamentally change antitrust enforcement (from lax to aggressive) depends on President Biden’s appointments. On this front, he has been mixed. Some appointments are traditional (meaning lax) corporate lawyers. Others are strong advocates for renewed antitrust enforcement. Some advocates for stronger antitrust enforcement were disappointed when Biden nominated Rohit Chopra for head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, since he was very aggressive on antitrust as a member of the Federal Trade Commission. Then Biden nominated Lina Khan to the FTC. She’s just as fierce of a critic, and a protege to Chopra. Khan helped write the House Subcommittee on Antitrust report on Big Tech last year, and is a rising star. She’ll likely be a strong advocate for increased scrutiny on future mergers and acquisitions.
Toss in economist Tim Wu joining the White House Council of Economic Advisors, Chopra’s commitment to enforcing rules at the CFPB, and the Senate weighing new antitrust bills that may—but likely won’t—have bipartisan support, and I see a changing landscape. Heck, when a Republican Senator writes an op-ed in favor of unions, anything is possible!
Yet the business community isn’t ready for this outcome. After a down year in deal-making due to Covid-19, they’re ready to get back on the merger train. (Speaking of, two big train companies want to merge.) Writing in his newsletter, Matt Stoller noted:
So what is the most likely outcome? Well, deal making won’t slow down until the Biden Administration sends even clearer signals that it will stop deals from happening. I expect this will start first with increased scrutiny on “megadeals”, those over $5 billion in value.
As for entertainment, the biggest potential impact is that Big Tech will be a pinch more worried. (Big Tech being at least Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Maybe Microsoft. Maybe Netflix.) Sure, maybe increased antitrust scrutiny won’t come for train companies, but clearly Big Tech is in the crossfire. This could hamper the long-hoped-for M&A spree of Big Tech on smaller media companies. That would change a lot of potential strategy.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
Netflix May (Huge May) Crack Down on Password Sharing
To continue the game of the last two weeks, is this “actual or potential” news? Every few months, something about password sharing and Netflix circulates on the Twitter (and then news websites) rumor mill.
Is this one different? Maybe. On the actual side, Netflix is genuinely running test messages telling customers to not share passwords. On the potential side, Netflix hasn’t actually limited password sharing to one household yet either.
Tubi May Produce Original Programming
Because of course they will. Everyone is making originals. However, paired with the news that Tubi will carry Fox NFL games, clearly the remaining pieces of Fox post-merger with Disney (Fox broadcast, Fox Sports and Fox News) see Tubi as the future.
Alibaba May Have to Sell Media Businesses
For a perfect example of a “potential” news story, see this Alibaba news out of China. Sources say that Alibaba may have to spin off media businesses to stay on the Chinese government’s good side. Let’s wait until this actually happens, but China seems to be cracking down on media consolidation by Big Tech in their backyard.
Walmart Considering a Smart TV Device
Walmart has a confusing approach to the Digital Video/Big Tech “dust up”, as The Economist recently described it. (Tech is having a dust up, whereas entertainment is having a war.) A year after buying Vudu and then selling it to Comcast, Walmart is back exploring if they should manufacture/brand a streaming stick under their brand.
The WME IPO is Back!
Buried in the news coverage was the return of the WME IPO, derailed by Covid-19 and a weak economy last year. Will it stick this time?
Lots of News with No News – March Madness
I’m sure I’ll stumble across articles either bemoaning, celebrating, worrying or any other emotion over the ratings for March Madness this year. Whatever they are, folks will likely use them to justify their preexisting beliefs on the future of TV, digital videos and the streaming wars. (Apply this to awards shows too if you’d like.)
I, meanwhile, will enjoy the tournament and how well the Pac-12 is dominating, especially my Bruins. Let’s hope they don’t delay any more columns!