For almost two decades, DirecTV's Sunday Ticket package of National Football League games has been a superstar performer for the satellite broadcaster.
But like any team with an aging and expensive player, DirecTV now has to decide whether to keep Sunday Ticket on its roster.
DirecTV pays $1 billion a season for the rights to all Sunday afternoon games under an exclusive deal that runs through next season. The satellite broadcaster and the NFL are in talks on a new contract, with cost and length being two sticking points.
Sunday Ticket, created in 1994, is a football fan's dream that provides a live feed to every afternoon game around the country.
The package liberated fans from watching only the games being shown on local channels in their market. It also fueled growth for DirecTV. Two million of the broadcaster's 20 million subscribers pay as much as $250 a month to receive the extra football programming.
"The Sunday Ticket package was a brilliant play for DirecTV, as it gave the displaced NFL fan an option to watch their team in the comfort of their own home and not be forced to go to the local sports bar," said Marc Bluestein, president of consulting firm Aquarius Sports & Entertainment. The "association with NFL definitely delivered large brand awareness for DirecTV, especially in its early years."
That has come at a cost. DirecTV's Sunday Ticket bill has more than doubled in the last 10 years and will probably continue rising.
One network sports executive predicts that DirecTV will be looking at a 40% increase to $1.4 billion for the 2015 season and 4% annual increases after that.
Neither the NFL nor DirecTV would comment on their talks.
At a DirecTV investor conference in early December, Chief Executive Mike White said the company has had "very constructive conversations with the NFL" and remains optimistic that a new accord will be reached.
That sounded more positive than what White told analysts in May, when he suggested Sunday Ticket has peaked in value. "It is a pretty mature product," he said then.
The NFL has been very successful at getting more money from its TV partners. Its new contracts with Fox, CBS and NBC -- which kick in next season -- average a combined $3.1 billion annually in rights fees, a 63% increase from their previous pacts.
ESPN's new deal with the NFL averages $1.9 billion a season, a 72% jump. At the same time, the NFL has made moves over the last several years that may have diminished the value of Sunday Ticket -- and may make DirecTV reluctant to accept a hefty increase.
For starters, the NFL Network, the league's own channel, now carries 13 Thursday night games, which reduces the number of Sunday games for Sunday Ticket.
The NFL has also slightly bumped up the number of nationally televised Sunday games that Fox and CBS carry.
Then there is RedZone, the channel the NFL launched five years ago that shows live action, including every touchdown, from all Sunday games. Although RedZone doesn't offer complete games, it shows plenty of live action and has taken away some of Sunday Ticket's cachet.
"RedZone is a pretty good substitute product for Sunday Ticket," said Brian Bedol, chief executive of Bedrocket Media Ventures and a former sports television executive.
Vince Wladika, a sports media strategist, said RedZone led him to drop Sunday Ticket this season.
"RedZone gives me what I need," he said -- and for only $5 to $6 a month.
At an analysts' meeting last year, DirecTV Chief Financial Officer Patrick Doyle suggested that the company might be willing to give up its exclusive hold on Sunday Ticket if the price tag got too high.
That would be good news to cable operators such as Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, which for years have longed to get their hands on Sunday Ticket.
But the NFL risks upsetting Fox and CBS if Sunday Ticket's availability went from just 20 million DirecTV subscribers to 100 million cable and satellite homes, or via the Internet.
Wider distribution of Sunday Ticket could do serious harm to the ratings of the local TV stations that carry Fox and CBS football.
The NFL used to give Fox and CBS a small piece of DirecTV's rights fees -- about $10 million for each network -- to compensate for any lost viewers, but that practice stopped several years ago.
For DirecTV, losing exclusivity to Sunday Ticket probably wouldn't hurt its bottom line. However, not carrying Sunday Ticket at all is a big risk.
"They would lose subscribers and their competitive advantage," said Marc Ganis, head of consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. If all the NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers went elsewhere, Ganis said, it would cost DirecTV billions in subscriber fees.
The length of the next contract is one of the hang-ups in the talks, according to a person with knowledge of the negotiations. DirecTV is interested in a contract as long as eight years, while the NFL would prefer a five-year commitment.
A DirecTV insider who declined to speak for attribution because of the sensitivity of the talks said an exclusive deal with the NFL would probably get done in the coming months, but it might be the last one.
One reason cited by industry observers is that as the NFL seeks to exploit new opportunities and create additional revenue streams, the value of an exclusive package with one distributor could diminish both for the league and the provider.
"With all the new platforms coming," Bedol said, "by the time the next Sunday Ticket deal comes up, it will be obsolete."