Football became the most popular sport in America in large part because of the NFL's commitment since the 1960s to air every game live on free television.
Now with the media landscape changing rapidly, the league hopes to use those same principles to grow the game on other continents.
The NFL announced a fascinating partnership on Wednesday with online giant Yahoo! to broadcast the Bills-Jaguars game for free on Oct. 25, the first free live stream of a game in NFL history. While the game will be aired on network TV in the Buffalo and Jacksonville markets, the rest of fans around the world can watch the game for free on all Yahoo! properties — Yahoo.com, Yahoo! Sports, Yahoo! Screen, and Tumblr.
The deal is a potential game-changer for domestic NFL fans who now have the ability to watch the game for free if they are unable to watch it at home or get to the local sports bar.
But the deal is also indicative of the NFL's long-term strategy to grow its game beyond US borders. All three NFL London games in 2015 will kick off at 1:30 p.m. London time, which in addition to providing US football fans with a new 9:30 a.m. window for watching games, is also about airing the games in prime-time slots in Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, and Tokyo, where games currently air in the middle of the night.
For now, the NFL has contracts with individual countries to air its games, but an online/streaming package could help bring the game to countless new viewers across the globe, like it did in the States in the 1960s and '70s.
"We're continually committed to building our international business, and part of that is just making sure we're delivering our product in times and windows that are easy for our fans to watch," said Hans Schroeder, the NFL's senior vice president of media strategy. "There's some real appeal to parts of Europe and Asia where it puts the game on Sunday night, which we're really excited about."
The NFL has dabbled with online/mobile content in the last few years. Verizon customers can watch the RedZone channel and certain games on the NFL Mobile app on their phones, while NBC and Fox allow fans to watch games on mobile devices once they sign in and authenticate through their cable providers.
But this deal with Yahoo! to broadcast the Bills-Jaguars game is truly free for the people. Terms of the deal were not announced, but Yahoo! is believed to have paid about $20 million for the rights to stream this game.
The deal came after 18 months of planning and negotiating with several companies, with Patriots owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft overseeing much of the project — Robert Kraft as chairman of the NFL's broadcast committee, and Jonathan Kraft as co-chairman of the digital media committee.
"They were very involved along the way — great in oversight, great in making sure we're thinking through all the ins and outs of doing something like this for the first time," Schroeder said. "Their wealth of experience and perspective were really invaluable to us."
Yahoo! emerged as the winner based on its reach — more than 1 billion unique users per month — and willingness to stream the game for free on its platforms. The fact that millions of Americans already visit Yahoo! on Sundays to play their wildly popular fantasy football games helped as well.
"They're really uniquely positioned as one of only a handful of companies around the world that has that kind of reach," Schroeder said.
The NFL does not envision live streams replacing the traditional TV broadcast experience. The NFL's current TV deals are quite lucrative — Fox, CBS, and NBC have contracts with the NFL through the 2022 season that will pay the league as much as $3 billion per season combined; ESPN has "Monday Night Football" locked up through 2021 for up to $1.9 billion per year; DirecTV will pay $1.5 billion per year for the Sunday Ticket package through 2022; and CBS is paying an additional $300 million for the Thursday night package in 2015.
The NFL won't be killing those golden gooses any time soon. But the online/mobile experience is clearly the next frontier as the NFL explores additional revenue opportunities and avenues to distribute games. If all goes well with Bills-Jaguars, the NFL could eventually sell an online/mobile package to a Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc.
"The thought that mobile will somehow supplant or destroy the conventional TV set, I don't think so," said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs his own media company in western Massachusetts. "There's a huge out-of-home potential viewership of NFL games, people who might be traveling or simply in a location where they can't access their high-definition TV sets. This is, I'm sure, part of a long-term strategy by the NFL to reach as many people as possible."
Schroeder said the NFL hasn't committed to anything past the Bills-Jaguars game — whether every NFL game will eventually be streamed online, whether the NFL would switch to a paid-subscription model or anything to that effect. But the NFL clearly sees a lot of value in the digital platforms.
"We want broad distribution of our games, and we want to ensure that our fans, wherever they are in the world, have the expectation that they can get it on any screen," Schroeder said. "I can't tell you what the world is going to look like in 2023, but it's about wide availability for our content."
Chargers incident just can’t compare
Of the many complaints from Patriots fans with regard to Deflategate, one is about the seemingly arbitrary severity of the punishments compared to past NFL incidents. Why did Tom Brady get a four-game suspension, and why was the team docked a first-round draft pick and fined a record $1 million, when in 2012 the Chargers were fined a mere $20,000 for attempting to conceal their use of "sticky" towels during a game against the Broncos?
Last week I spoke with a league source who was present at that Chargers-Broncos game three years ago, and he provided additional details that explain the disparity in the punishments.
As the source explained, the Chargers were not busted for putting "stickum" or another grip-improving substance on their towels, and they didn't really try to hide the evidence.
The Chargers were using a product called "Gorilla Gold," a towel that comes with a special grip-enhancer on it that is used by golfers, tennis players, quarterbacks, and other athletes that need a firm grip. The towels are common in high school and college football, and the Chargers and other NFL teams had used them for several years.
NFL rules state that teams can't put any substance on a towel that leaves a residue, but Gorilla Gold was never banned by the NFL because those towels don't leave a residue on the user's hands. Its website boasts that the product "dissipates and doesn't leave a sticky mess."
During that 2012 Broncos-Chargers game, an equipment boy came onto the field with Gorilla Gold towels during a TV timeout. When he heard the referee blow his whistle, he sprinted back to the sideline because he thought the game was starting up again. He had no idea the referee was actually trying to get his attention so he could look at the towels.
"The kid was like, 'Why would you ever want to talk to me?' " the source explained.
After the game the NFL determined that the Gorilla Gold towels weren't illegal, but fined the Chargers a nominal $20,000 sum for not cooperating with the referee.
When the Chargers explained what had happened, the fine was overturned.
So, why didn't the NFL explain all of this? The league didn't want to mention Gorilla Gold products because the company didn't have a licensing deal with the league.
"This was like, 'You didn't do anything technically illegal, but we don't want you or any team to use the towel because you're going to make Gorilla Gold millions of dollars and they didn't pay a licensing fee, so you can't use it,' " the source explained.
Newton’s contract will set the market
At this point, most NFL fans know not to take too seriously the big numbers reported in player contracts, because they often are overinflated and reflect future money that won't be earned. But Cam Newton's new six-year, $118.466 million deal is an eye-opener.
Newton, only 26 and entering his fifth NFL season, will take in $31 million in 2015, $54 million in the first two years of the deal, and $67.166 million in the first three years. That's a nice chunk of money for an athlete, even by NBA and Major League Baseball standards.
Newton's deal breaks down to a $22.5 million signing bonus, another $7.5 million roster bonus paid out on Saturday, a $10 million option bonus in 2016, and base salaries of $1 million, $13 million, and $13.166 million the next three seasons.
And it's not unreasonable to think Newton could reach five or even six years on this deal. The last three years are worth $50.8 million, and the bonus structure in the contract keeps Newton's salary cap numbers reasonable. With the salary cap levels set to increase for the next several years in part because of an influx of TV money, Newton's cap numbers of $20 million-$23 million won't be too tough to fit under the Panthers' salary cap.
Newton's contract is even more eye-popping when compared with other recent ones. Miami's Ryan Tannehill will get $39.5 million over the first three years of his deal, and realistically only has two years guaranteed. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick gets $38 million in the first three years of his deal, with contract deescalators and a year-to-year structure as well.
Newton is now the new king for young quarterback contracts in the new NFL economy. But he's also just setting the table for Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, who will use Newton's contract as a model and most likely surpass it in the next year or two.
Brady’s jersey remains a big winner in sales
It's no surprise to see that the NFL's top-two selling jerseys for May belonged to the two quarterbacks that went at the top of the draft — Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. But it is a little surprising that Tom Brady's jersey was No. 3, a testament to the Patriots' passion in defending their star quarterback as he battles Roger Goodell over Deflategate.
A few other interesting jersey notes: Of the top 25 sellers in May, only five were jerseys of defensive players (J.J. Watt was the highest at No. 12); Eagles quarterback Tim Tebow came in 15th; Seattle's "12th Man" ranked 20th; and the only other rookies to appear were Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (24th) and Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper (25th). Rob Gronkowski was No. 6 overall, while Julian Edelman ranked fourth among receivers.
I figured that Bill Belichick wearing an Armenian flag pin at the White House when the Patriots visited on April 23, a day before the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, was a nod of solidarity to his longtime right-hand man, Berj Najarian, whose grandfather survived the massacre. But according to the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, a weekly newspaper in Watertown, it turns out that the Patriots were even more political that day than many of us realized.
Najarian, speaking last Monday at St. James Armenian Church, told his audience of his encounter with President Obama, who has gone back on a campaign promise and refuses to use the word "genocide" out of diplomatic pressure from Turkey.
When Obama shook hands with the Patriots one by one, Najarian looked Obama in the eye and said he hoped Obama would recognize the genocide in a statement. Obama responded, "That's a tough one. I am trying to prevent future genocides." But Najarian didn't leave it there.
"Well, what about the Pope?" Najarian said, referring to Pope Francis readily using the word genocide in a speech earlier in the week. Obama stopped and said, "Well, the Pope doesn't have a government to run like I do."
Get ready for a summer full of these: The Rochester Red Wings, the Triple A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, held a "Deflategate Promotion" on Thursday with the Pawtucket Red Sox in town. Any fan who brought a fully inflated ball (basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, etc.) received $2 off his ticket . . . Not getting invited to the NFL Combine each February is not a big deal, especially now that the league holds regional combines across the country. According to the NFL, 119 players with regional combine experience are on rosters right now, and 11 were drafted . . . One interesting nugget to come out of Wes Welker's Boston media tour last week — he and his wife, Anna, are expecting twins this summer. Welker said he's taken several vacations since the season ended, because after this weekend his wife won't be able to travel. He'll be working out in South Florida and hoping to sign with a team . . . Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine are getting the band back together this August, as the Browns will be traveling to Buffalo for joint practices with the Bills. Pettine and Ryan coached for five years together in Baltimore, and Pettine was Ryan's defensive coordinator for four years with the Jets. They also share a healthy mistrust of the Patriots . . . Three-time Super Bowl champion fullback Patrick Pass is back in football — sort of. Last week, Pass was named the defensive backs coach of the Boston Renegades, a full-contact female team in the Women's Football Alliance. The Renegades are 3-1 and "hope to host playoff games at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville on June 27, July 11, and July 25."
Shuffling the line
Peyton Manning has benefited from stellar offensive line play throughout his career. However, the 2015 season could prove different. The Broncos lost left tackle Ryan Clady to an ACL injury on May 27, leaving them with just one returning offensive line starter from last year's squad that lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Here's a look at who will protect Manning this season and how well his lines have performed.