Football Tech

Why the NFL and YouTube would make such great teammates

I'm a long-suffering Philadelphia Eagles fan. Not only am I apparently destined to be perennially underwhelmed by the team's on-field results, but as a resident of New York City, I'm forced to make my way down to the local sports bar where I'm subject to the conversational whims of inebriated Giants fans. Since I’m not a DirecTV subscriber and therefore don’t have access to the NFL Sunday Ticket offering, the local sports bar is my lot in life if I ever want to watch my team on television on most Sundays.

But there may be a glimmer of light in the distance: According to reporting from AllThingsD, Google has begun early negotiations with the National Football League about putting out-of-market NFL games on YouTube. This could prove to be a wonderful thing, for both Google and for NFL fans.

First, we must note that these are little more than conversations between two large corporate entities. Companies have conversations all the time, but that rarely means that anything will come of it. Heck, Yahoo was having conversations with Mark Zuckerberg about buying Facebook back in 2006. Still, Google teaming up with the NFL at this particular time would make sense for a variety of reasons.

First, Google has a lot of money—certainly enough to best DirecTV’s $1 billion-a-year deal with the NFL (and Google has been more than willing to engage in billion dollar deals as of late). For its part, the NFL may indeed be interested in teaming up with Google, but at the very least is willing to let DirecTV—whose contract ends at the end of this season—know that it has other pigskin suitors.

Why this makes sense for Google

Google has been on the fringe of TV for years, but has never been quite able to make its way into the endzone of the American living room. This is something the NFL can help with. Hands-down, professional football is the most popular sport in the United States. And aside from the eyeballs and attention it brings, NFL games carry the cachet of being all-American, mainstream, apple pie. It was arguably the NFL that gave legitimacy to the upstart Fox network (then associated with low-brow fare like Married with Children) when it first won the rights to broadcast NFC games in 1994.

Mainstream cachet—and ubiquity—is something that Google desperately wants right now for its video-on-demand options. This is particularly true now as the Mountain View, Calif., tech giant may have finally discovered the key to America’s collective living room in the form of Chromecast. At only $35, Google’s little TV dongle will give every modern TV access to the Web via Google in a way that Google TV has never been able to accomplish over the past three years. Since its introduction last month, Chromecast has sold at a brisk pace—so much that Google has had problems keeping up with demand.

It is also important to note that Google was represented in its talks with the NFL not only by CEO Larry Page but by YouTube content boss Robert Kyncle as well. YouTube has been steadily building its brand recognition as an original content studio, rather than a mere conduit for adorable cat videos and other meme-ish oddities. In just the past year, YouTube has championed paid subscriptions for its popular channels, established original content events like Comedy Week and Geek Week, and re-vamped its mobile app to make it more Chromecast-friendly (and therefore, friendlier to living rooms as well).

Whatever happens, Google appears to be making all the right moves to make YouTube a content network, not just a user-submitted video repository.

Easy polyscreen access to America's favorite game might be coming soon.

Why this makes sense for fans

As consumers lurch over the tipping point of comfort with streaming content, there is increasing competition to become the go-to conduit for streaming-to-TV access with suitors in the form of Microsoft, Apple, Roku, and countless others.

The NFL could prove to be just the product that could tie America’s heart to one preferred medium—as the league did for Fox two decades ago. And as with Fox in the early 1990s, Google may be willing to take a financial loss with expensive NFL rights—at least, at first—as the real return on investments will be further down the line in the form of brand legitimacy.

This is all conjecture, of course, but a theoretical YouTube NFL channel would give fans more affordable access to the out-of-market game across multiple screens. (It's very unlikely the NFL would give up very lucrative in-market network TV deals for now.) Unlike with DirectTV, YouTube would be able to offer access to just the NFL channel. Currently, Direct TV requires users to buy a DirecTV home subscription when available. (The provider does offer online access to Sunday Ticket without a home connection for $300-a-season, but only when DirecTV is not available).

Google could certainly offer a better deal than this. In the process it might sell a lot of Chromecasts and—more importantly—get more eyeballs acquainted with YouTube on the TV.

For the 2013–14 season, Sunday Ticket remains a DirecTV exclusive. So for the next several Sundays, as I’m forced to interact with with drunks recalling all of the Giants’ past Super Bowl victories, I will have at least some hope that in the not-too-distant future, I may yet get access to the NFL in the comfort of my own living room.

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