NFL Missing Opportunity, Alienating Fans

Last week, Jacksonville Jaguars management announced that it will – not might – but will black out all home games in their local market during the 2009 season.

Meanwhile, Rams fans in St. Louis were unable to watch the preseason tilt with the Atlanta Falcons on local television, because the team failed to sell enough tickets to overcome the NFL’s black out requirements for ticket sales.

Now contrast those not so “fan”-tastic developments with the one announced by Major League Baseball and it’s wholly owned subsidiary MLB Advanced Media last week.

We compare and contrast after the jump!

Baseball for a buck:

Coming soon to an iPhone near you: 99-cent pay-per-view baseball. And there’s a lot more where that comes     from.

If Major League Baseball Advanced Media were an independent company, it would likely be worth billions.     (More about that later.) Instead, it has become one of baseball’s crown jewels, an online powerhouse     serving as a model for getting people to pay for digital content and marketing its expertise in real-time     video to outside clients.

Not only does MLBAM provide the most fan-friendly viewing options of the four major North American sports leagues, they are continuously improving.

First they offered the Extra Innings package via an exclusive agreement with DirecTV.  After that move was met with some backlash, EI is now available on most major cable providers as well.  This package is almost identical to the NFL’s Sunday Ticket subscription service that remains only available on DirecTV.

MLBAM developed the wildly successful MLB.tv for streaming their games online.  I am a two-season subscriber now, using the internet to keep tabs on my Cardinals from outside the local market.  Despite the bugs that were worked out early in the season (MLBAM completely rewrote their streaming software for 2009 to become independent of Microsoft and their so-so Silverlight media player), it is a fantastic product.

This season the iPhone application MLB AtBat was added to the stable.  Originally, AtBat offered only radio broadcasts for every game, but you at least had the option of which broadcast to listen to.  Subsequently, they have added AtBat.tv live video streaming to the app, originally for one or two featured games per day (which are still available for those without a MLB.tv subscription), and now expanded for those with MLB.tv subscriptions to offer any game via live video streaming.

As mentioned above, MLBAM now plans to offer games on a pay-per-view basis, for 99 cents each.  That represents, to me, three MAJOR improvements/product roll-outs just within the 2009 season.

It should be noted that there ARE blackout restrictions on MLB.tv and AtBat.tv.  However, these restrictions are merely location-based.  You cannot connect to either service in a team’s local market because you can find pretty much any game for any team on a local carrier in their market.  The Cardinals are shown in the St. Louis market by either Fox Sports Midwest, KSDK, or one of MLB’s national partners for every game, home or away.  There are no extenuating league requirements or rules regarding ticket sales governing these broadcasts, to my knowledge.

Oh, by the way, have I mentioned the MLB Network and their great programming?

What makes it so difficult for the NFL (or any other league for that matter) to follow suit?

Obviously there is a big difference between playing 162 games versus only 16 regular season games for the NFL squads.  As such, teams must maximize their revenue at every opportunity, and ticket sales are one big way to do that.  Unfortunately, in today’s economic climate, ticket sales are down.  In turn, teams wishing to gain exposure to fans in their local market via television broadcast must either purchase a number of tickets themselves to bust the blackout threshhold, or hope for a local benefactor to step forward and make that purchase.  Being that teams are struggling to find businesses and individuals to pay top dollar for their luxury suites and high-priced premium tickets, digging deeper into those pockets is proving more fruitless now.

Perhaps even more short-sighted is the lack of options for out-of-town viewers who wish to follow a particular team.  Sure, folks outside of the immediate St. Louis area (or Jacksonville, or any other NFL city), but still within the defined regional viewing area will receive the Fox or CBS broadcasts, but what about remotely located Rams fans like myself?  My NFL region is squarely within the Chicago/Minnesota/Green Bay sphere of influence and I cannot carry a DirecTV subscription for other reasons than wanting to watch the Rams.

Who gets my money then?  The local sports bar.  Sure, that sports bar is subscribed to Sunday Ticket, so the NFL garners that revenue – but wouldn’t it stand to reason that they could increase their revenues, and in turn, team revenues by opening up new streams, like NFL.tv live online streaming?

We already know CBS can make it happen, because they actually contract through MLBAM to stream their coverage of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament live via their website during March.

MLB has clearly positioned itself as a sports media mogul. What remains to be seen is which league will be next to step up.  With the increase in fan interest in the NFL because of fantasy football, league parity, general excitement over the competition, etc. it would seem that the league is poised to capitalize on a high point of interest in their product and a low point in available dollars to pay for ever escalating tickets to games.  A family may never spend the cash on tickets and assorted concessions that go along with attending a game live, but they may spend $120 for a season’s worth of games for their team live via the internet.  First scenario represents zero revenue for the league and its partners.  Second scenario may not represent much, after development costs, etc – but it’s easy to see that the revenue could be greater than zero.

I do not claim to know the inner workings of the NFL’s current television deal nor do I expect to influence their negotiations, but it seems they’re really missing the boat on this one.  Let me watch my Rams from the comfort of my own desk chair, Commissioner Goodell.

(… off soapbox)


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