My colleague Meg James reported Saturday that the NFL will be going online this year with its Sunday night games -- not exactly its most valuable product, but not a bad place to conduct an experiment in online distribution. Although this is close to a no-brainer, it represents something of a leap forward in advertiser-supported sports programming online. All told, 17 games will be shown live on NFL.com and NBCSports.com (NBC has the TV rights to the game), starting with a Giants-Redskins game on, umm, Thursday Sept. 4.
The most significant thing about this one-year test is that, unlike what NBC and other networks do with their prime-time schedules, the free online football games will compete directly with the versions on TV.
There's no time delay, no pay-per-view fee. It's not exactly ground-breaking -- TNT offered some free NBA playoff games earlier this year. For the most part, however, the pro sports leagues have charged fans for the privilege of watching live broadcasts online. The NHL, for example, demanded up to $165 last year for a full season's worth of games. But as CBS demonstrated with this year's NCAA basketball tournament, online sports audiences can be more lucrative (on a per-viewer basis) than the ones for TV broadcasts. According to The Washington Post, the average March Madness viewer on CBSSports.com generated more advertising dollars than the average person watching the games on TV. Of course, the online audience of 4.8 million paled in comparison to the TV audience of 132 million.
NBC plans to strip out the TV ads from the streamed version and insert a new set, sharing some of the revenue with the league. Because online ads can be more precisely targeted, they tend to command a higher CPM than TV ads do. The March Madness results suggest that the peacock network doesn't have to worry about losing money if football viewers shift from TV to Web. But NBC executives have said (and their counterparts at other networks have agreed) that online offerings don't reduce TV viewership, they add to it. Dan Masonson, the NFL's director of corporate communications, said the league expects the online telecasts to be a supplement to the games on TV, not a substitute for them. Most of the online viewers will probably be watching the game on TV as well, relying on the Web programming for additional camera angles or statistics.
By the way, the online games will be blacked out in local markets where tickets hadn't sold out at least 72 hours in advance. The more things change....