Sports World to See
How Online Offering
Affects Viewership
By SAM SCHECHNER and MATTHEW FUTTERMAN
July 26, 2008; Page A3

Football fans will soon be able to watch some of the biggest professional games on the Internet.

The National Football League and General Electric Co.'s NBC Sports will announce Monday that they plan to stream on the Web 17 regular-season games, mostly Sunday night matchups -- the first time the league has widely distributed complete games live on the Internet in the U.S.

The deal, which kicks off with the season opener on Thursday, Sept. 4, is the biggest step so far by the NFL to wring some value out of the Web. But it is a tentative step, covering only games that air on NBC, excluding the NFL's 239 other games that air on other networks, including CBS, Fox and ESPN, during the regular season. Nor does it include the league's playoffs or the Super Bowl, which will air on NBC next year.

The league and NBC say it is an experiment. They hope to prove they can lure new viewers and people who are already watching at home by adding interactive elements. Viewers will be able to choose from among at least four live camera angles and review statistics that update during the game, according to the league. The league and the network will share in ad sales.

"I think the consumer of media is more and more interested in a greater sense of control over their media experience," said Gary Zenkel, NBC Sports' executive vice president of strategic partnerships. "Whether that translates to sports viewing or not, no one knows. But this is certainly an opportunity to experiment."

The move will help the NFL demonstrate how much value there is in the online rights to its games, potentially giving it another bargaining chip when its broadcast deals next come up for negotiation. Several major sports organizations already allow some live games to be shown on the Web. CBS Sports has streamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association's March Madness basketball tournament. At the Olympics next month, NBC is streaming 25 out of 34 events online. And Major League Baseball has its own Web site, MLB.com, that has created a lucrative business selling subscriptions to MLB.tv, which streams out-of-market games.

The NFL has been slower to embrace the Internet, largely because its national broadcasting contracts with four networks and DirecTV Group Inc. bring in more than $3.7 billion a year, according to people close to the league and networks, far more than revenue other leagues earn. Its Web site, NFL.com, until now has offered an exhaustive supply of information and statistics but it hasn't streamed complete games online for broad U.S. viewing. It does sell subscriptions to streaming of the games to people overseas.

The NFL owns the online rights for its games but its broadcast TV deals have restricted the league from streaming footage of those games while they are in progress.

Part of the NFL's challenge is the nature of its season, which lasts just 17 weeks and includes 16 games for each team, with the vast majority of the games played Sundays or in the evening on weekdays and broadcast nationally, at least via satellite. An Oakland Raiders fan living in Florida merely has to sign up for the NFL's Sunday Ticket on DirecTV and tune in to each game for about three hours a week to keep up with his team.

Baseball, on the other hand, has a 162-game season, and the flexibility of mlb.com, which provides everything from graphically conveyed pitch-by-pitch coverage, to streaming video, to condensed versions of games, has become the avenue of choice for fans to keep up with their teams from anywhere they are near a computer. Rather than cannibalize television revenue, the access to baseball has helped to drive the Major Leagues to record attendance and revenues no one expected just a few years ago.

By beginning to stream games on the Internet, too, the NFL is recognizing that fans want to interact with teams more than simply by watching the games on television, and in doing so the league is trying to become a master of the 21st-century technology in the same way it mastered the preferred technology of the 20th century.

The NFL approached NBC in recent months to hammer out a deal to stream its games, in part, it says, because NBC's nationwide broadcasts, which averaged 15.9 million viewers last season, make for a clean test of whether online availability will boost or shrink viewership.

"Does it cannibalize, or is it incremental?" said Brian Rolapp, the NFL's senior vice president of media strategy and digital media. Mr. Rolapp wants to know: "Does it make sense to use it to go out and build new products and new businesses?" NBC, for its part, said it doesn't believe the streams will cannibalize its broadcast viewership.