Facebook reportedly in talks to stream NFL's 'Thursday Night Football' games

"Thursday Night Football" could soon share screen time with your Aunt Vera's pictures of Cabo.

Facebook, the world's largest social network, is reportedly in talks with the National Football League for streaming rights for the Thursday games.

A matchup of the titans of tech and TV would mark a watershed moment for the media and Silicon Valley, whose leading companies are flush with cash and hungry for premium content to attract more eyeballs and ad dollars.

The NFL, in turn, could use those deep pockets to help push up the bidding for its Thursday games, which were introduced 10 years ago.

"The more customers, the higher price the NFL can command," said Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates. "For Facebook, the NFL would drive huge volumes of consumption to get advertising and data. Facebook has to remain relevant. With other social media platforms emerging, Facebook has to push the envelope."

In an interview with Variety, Dan Rose, Facebook's vice president of partnerships, confirmed the social network's interest in the NFL.

Streaming the games, Rose said, would also allow Facebook to create content before and after the games on and off the field to engage an even bigger audience.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. The NFL said in a statement that it expects to reach a deal for over-the-top streaming rights in the near future, but declined to name any bidders.

Amazon, Apple, Google and Verizon are also rumored to be interested in a deal that is likely to command hundreds of millions of dollars for the NFL.

The league has experimented with streaming before. Yahoo streamed the first free NFL game for a global audience last year — a 34-31 Jacksonville Jaguars win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 25 at London's Wembley Stadium.

The NFL's longtime partner for Sunday games is DirecTV, which has a contract to also stream out-of-market games to subscribers in the U.S. and Mexico.

Verizon has a $1-billion contract with the NFL to stream games on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays to paying customers through its mobile app. That deal expires at the end of next season.

Last month, CBS and NBC announced a $450-million deal to broadcast "Thursday Night Football" on TV. The broadcasters can also stream the games on their apps. The bidder that wins the digital rights to Thursday's matchups will simply stream either CBS' or NBC's play-by-play.

The multiple deals underscore how complicated and lucrative NFL media rights have become.

"There's a lot of apple carts," said Bob Gutkowski, principal at Iron Clad Sports, a sports industry investment and advisory firm. "They've got to figure out a way to keep them all together to generate more money for the league."

Media rights have become an increasingly lucrative business for sports leagues. In its sports industry outlook, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that broadcasting contracts will surpass gate revenues for the first time by 2018.

Part of the reason is that sports remain one of the few forms of entertainment that can still command a big, dedicated audience at a time when cord cutting is proliferating. When opportunities arise to buy new media rights or seize a years-old contract that expired, a free-for-all typically ensues.

"There's a huge scramble to keep customers hooked on traditional subscription packages," said Todd Supplee, a partner at PwC's entertainment and media practice. "One way to do that still is tune it to live sports and reality entertainment" such as the Academy Awards.

Facebook's interest in the NFL dovetails with its aggressive push into video, particularly live video. The medium has drawn interest with the introduction of apps such as Meerkat and Twitter's Periscope.

"Live is happening right now; it's new, it's novel," Sappington said. "There's great interest in looking for something you haven't seen before like live sports event or a live concert."

Facebook, which has more than a billion active users, introduced live streaming last year, restricting it to celebrities, athletes, journalists and other public figures to boost attention. Users need to have verified Facebook pages to use the feature.

Rose told Variety that Facebook was aiming to build up a sizable audience for the product before considering a way to monetize the feature.

One way of doing that includes offering to pay stars to live-stream, Rose said.

"We're identifying a small number of people who can move quickly — if we are asking them to go live several times a week for a decent amount of time, we want to be sure they're motivated to do that," Rose told Variety.

In the same way, Facebook could leverage its social media expertise to increase interest in the NFL and its players.

Just in time for the last Super Bowl, Facebook unveiled Sports Stadium, a feature aimed at connecting friends during live sports games through messaging, posts and scores. The move was seen as a bid to capitalize on the second-screen phenomenon, in which audiences now prefer to watch live events on TV with a device to stay socially engaged.

This had been Twitter's sweet spot, but its inability to grow its user base has given Facebook an opportunity to fill unmet demand.

Both the NFL and Facebook could use a shot of millennial credibility. Their audiences are getting older rather than younger.

Alan Wolk, a senior analyst at Diffusion Group, a media consulting firm, said young viewers want an intimate and authentic view of athletes — something that can be delivered through live video.

"Alternative and extreme sports athletes are all over YouTube, going the PewDiePie route and making themselves accessible behind the scenes," Wolk said. "Younger viewers have that expectation of access. If the NFL can do that through Facebook, all the better."

david.pierson@latimes.com

Twitter: @dhpierson

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 10, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Facebook aims to join stream team - Company in talks with NFL for rights to Thursday games" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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