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NFL goes online, down and out

Nfl_logo The NFL, having done its best to limit the attention paid to its teams online, is now trying to attract as small an audience as it can for games streamed over the Internet. While other pro leagues have been webcasting their games for several years, for free or for a fee, the NFL is just now starting to offer live video feeds online to U.S. fans. But the announcement earlier this month by DirecTV shows just how little enthusiasm the footballers have for new media. The feeds will be available only to fans who sign up for the high-definition version of DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, which in itself is an expensive package of televised games. The total cost for the season, according to Ars Technica, is $368.

A better way to look at the pricing is this: people who pay for access to every televised game (the Sunday Ticket package), plus an extra $99 to watch the games in high definition (the SuperFan upgrade), get the SuperCast online service as a freebie. Rather than using the Net to expand the reach of its games, as Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL do, the NFL is using it to make a super-premium TV package marginally more attractive to people with HDTV sets.

The NFL's Internet strategy seems driven by the same kind of thinking that has kept the entertainment industry from taking full advantage of new opportunities online. The league apparently is doing everything it can to prevent the migration of viewers from TV to the Net, for fear of undermining its cash cow. Yes, the NFL's rights fees are higher than any other sport's, and they've provided more than half the annual revenue collected by the teams. But it's hard to believe that anyone would rather watch a game through the Net instead of via a local broadcaster, cable or satellite, particularly when the latter group is airing the game in high-def. Nor could the league make a credible argument that webcasts would lead to more piracy than TV broadcasts, given the ease with which TV shows can be recorded digitally. The main impact here is on people who want to watch a game on TV but can't. If online access to games costs $368, those fans just won't tune in at all.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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