NFL: TV Has Flatlined, Online Is the Future: Streaming Forum 2016

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The NFL is creating a digitally-delivered fan experience that will be “superior” to its own TV presentation, and will soon be worth over $1 billion a year, according to the NFL executive in charge.

“There are a wealth of opportunities to create a superior product online which will make NFL digital far more potent than TV,” said Shannon Rutherford, director of digital media video operations for the NFL, delivering the Streaming Forum 2016 second-day keynote address. “We have 360-degree immersive video and virtual reality. We can personalize it. We can create our own content, and we can distribute through multiple digital channels including social media.”

By contrast, he noted that TV was a one-way communication with viewing figures trending downwards, a growth in cord-cutters, and an ageing audience.

With broadcast deals locked up with Fox, CBS, and NBC until 2022, the NFL has begun dabbling in live streaming. Notably, it sold rights worth around $20 million to Yahoo to live stream an in-season game from London last season.

All bets are off post 2022, with Rutherford hinting that OTT will form a central part of NFL strategy. “Digital rights expansion is crucial to the NFL's long-term success,” he said.

Until then, the league has to find other ways to reach fans on OTT and mobile devices. These includes NFL mobile apps; premium subscription service Game Pass, which permits live streaming of all games internationally; and social media. In 2014, the NFL debuted four online original programs. It increased that to ten shows in 2015.

“TV viewing has flatlined in the U.S. since 2010, while digital consumption has gone through the roof,” Rutherford said. “Younger audiences are more engaged. All of this puts a lot of pressure on ad revenue, and make digital more attractive to reach key demographics. The question is what does the NFL do about it?”

One result is NFL Now, a digital-only fan destination presented as a TV-like linear lean-back experience with on-demand game highlights, studio shows, and talent-led analysis. Ironically, creating this with high production values makes the NFL reliant on broadcast kit such as video switchers, routers, and orchestration hubs.

“We are using a traditional broadcast mentality to create a linear experience using the same gear as broadcast itself, but delivering it digitally and adding interactivity,” Rutherford said.

The digital team takes the same live linear feed as broadcast, turning clips into highlights in as close to real-time as it can get.

“NFL is like a news organization in that our highlights are perishable,” Rutherford said. “It's not going to be evergreen content, so the primary use case is for fans who want to see what happened that day. The faster we can get it out the more opportunities we have to maximize revenue.”

The NFL needs to hit several essential marks when delivering live content, Rutherford believes.

“You have to have 100 percent uptime while the game is playing. The stream should be smooth with no more than a one percent buffer, and the time to enter the stream should be less than a second.”

Rutherford added, “Success often means money, so for us that means a revenue over a billion dollars per year from digital delivery.”

Attaining that means ensuring that digital ad inventory is always completely fulfilled, he said.

If the NFL intends to control the creation and distribution of its own content, it has some way to go to match current TV deals worth at least $3 billion a year (for 2013 to 2022) it cut with U.S. broadcasters.

“Our product will become a daily habit for our fans," Rutherford said in closing.

Watch the full keynote below:


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