NFL season starting Oct. 15? Could be… What’s streaming’s role?

NFL

Wondering when that football itch is going to get scratched? The good news: The NFL reportedly plans to release a flexible schedule May 7. And the bad? Well, the NFL reportedly has a plan that could get 16 games in with a start as late as Oct. 15 and the Super Bowl being pushed to Feb . 15 from its current play date of Feb. 7. It could go even later.

Sports Business Journal reports the plans could include by bye weeks and (who’s gonna miss it?) no Pro Bowl.

But SBJ reports that, basically, everything is up for consideration as the coronavirus continues to dictate how we’ll be resuming our lives.

NFL: A ratings monster

NFL football typically owns TV viewing ratings during the fall, dominating national and local markets on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. Sports fans are so hungry for any live action that the NFL’s virtual draft Thursday night drew some 15.6 million fans, almost as many as the 16.5 million who watched games last season. The viewership Thursday was 26% higher than the previous record for Night 1 viewing (12.4 million) set in 2014 and 36% better than last year’s viewership.

The NFL has seen two years of ratings increases after several years of declines. Viewership for 2019 was up about 5%. Games made up 47 of the top 50 shows watched in 2019, owning the Top 10, with Sunday Night Football averaging 20 million viewers.

Its network partnerships end in 2022, and it’s possible the NFL could look for a 25%, or more, bump in rights fees above the $5 billion a year it already earns.

With pay-TV subscribers fleeing, is streaming in the game?

But, that assumes a season happens, of course, which is why it’s pushing so hard to nail down some (semi) solid dates.

Another concern? Pay-TV is hanging on by its fingernails, especially with younger viewers who are more attuned to streaming.

The assumption is that the current pandemic could push even more consumers to cut the cord, which would give providers smaller audiences.

AT&T last week reported it had lost 897,000 premium subscribers to its various pay-TV offerings in Q1. It’s virtual pay-TV service, AT&T TV Now lost an additional 138,000 subs, bringing the telcos cord-cutting number for the quarter to 1.04 million.

Look for the NFL to try for quick agreements on deals to leverage the past two years of gains.

Amazon, Google and Apple (forget about Netflix, it has no interest in live sports) are potential players in the party moving forward, but the traditional TV networks are going to be doing more than simply broadcasting games. They’re going to be looking for ways to make streaming games a core piece of their pie… or risk losing streaming rights to tech players.

At the very least, Amazon will carry on with its Thursday Night Football deal, which has served it well. And of the three could also wrest away NFL Sunday Ticket, especially with current right’s owner, AT&T’s DirecTV, shedding subscribers.

But will there be an NFL season? Really?

Plans are being laid for a number of scenarios that gets the NFL launching its season ASAP, making sure it can play 16 regular season games… but that Oct. 15 target could be a tight one.

And the big question, of course, will be, even if they play, will fans come back for games? Or will we be treated to artificial crowd sounds piped into games and tight shots of the action?

Some recent surveys show that just 20% of self-described “loyal fans” of the performing arts say they’ll be back as soon as performances begin. The concern? Not only will coronavirus see a resurgence in the fall, but there’s still no proven treatment or, obviously, a vaccine.

If that reflective of NFL crowds? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s more likely than not. With smaller crowds, comes reduced ticket and concessions revenue. That would hit owners’ bottom lines hard.

We’ll know more by May 7, but be prepared for a truncated season, or, gasp!, a 2020 pause (nah, the NFL can’t let that happen).

Stay tuned and stay well.

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