NFL opting for subscription-free streaming of regular season, Super Bowl

Sports rights remain among the most expensive in the industry, and with good reason… they are the last bastion of appointment television, although there’s been some fraying around the edges there, as well over the past couple of years.

Major sports leagues in the U.S. have seen a significant falloff in terms of attendance, with operations like NASCAR going so far as to decrease the size of their grandstand areas in an effort to make it at least look like fan engagement is still strong. Even broadcast rights are beginning to feel the pinch as ad revenues continue to slip with ratings and younger viewers continue to avoid the hours-long commitment most sporting events entail.

Nevertheless, sports continue to hold a hallowed place in the industry, and leagues are embracing streaming as a key lure to re-bond with Millennials and Gen Edge.

This week’s announcement from the National Football League and U.S. broadcaster CBS that the season’s premiere event – the Super Bowl – would, for the first time, be available to stream for free on any screen, including mobile devices, connected TVs and computers via and the CBS Sports app, as well as on the CBS All Access subscription service.

The league also announced that fans no longer would have to be pay-TV subscribers to watch in-market regular season and playoff games online via the NFL app and Yahoo Sports, which is owned by Verizon, but they wouldn’t be able to stream to smart TVs – unless they are pay-TV subscribers.

“If you don’t get to that younger demographic, who aren’t conditioned to go to the television, you do run the risk of losing them,” said Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief business and media officer. “We think people will still want to watch on the biggest screen possible.”

While the NFL doesn’t immediately expect streaming to make up for the audience losses it’s experiencing, it does see the 2-3% audience bump as a wave of the future, one it intends to leverage with younger viewers who increasingly have no relationship with traditional TV, especially pay TV.

“Our entire model—and I think this is different than other sports—is based on reach,” Rolapp said. “It’s based on reaching as many people as we can, as long as we can.”

Last year, NBC had the Super Bowl broadcasting rights and streamed the game to about 2.02 million viewers, the most ever. This year, with the game being available on through CBS’s app on Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV, Roku, Android TV, Samsung Smart TVs, Xbox One, and Amazon Channels, CBS hopes to easily top that number.

The NFL – so far – is alone in its online strategy. But, should it manage to drive viewing up beyond that 2-3% range, expect other leagues to adopt more streaming, as well. Bottom line: It’s where all the eyeballs are going.

Stay tuned.

Jim O’Neill is Editor of Videomind and Principal Analyst at Brightcove. You can follow him on Twitter @JimONeillMedia and on LinkedIn