Eight days after decreasing the salary cap for the first time since 2011, the NFL announced a massive new 11-year media deal worth $113 billion. Set to take effect in 2023, this agreement represents the largest deal in media history and nearly doubles the value of the NFL’s previous contracts. CBS, FOX, NBC, and ESPN will retain their rights to broadcast AFC games, NFC games, Sunday Night Football, and Monday Night Football, respectively, while Disney’s ESPN and ABC join the Super Bowl broadcast rotation. DirectTV will retain rights to Sunday Ticket—a complete package of every NFL game—through 2022, though its successor is still unknown. Most fans will thus notice little change in their Sunday afternoon routines. However, this deal has the NFL poised to expand its viewership, raise its salaries, and solidify its position as the dominant broadcast property in the country.
The critical detail of this new deal is the growth of live streams, which the NFL has dabbled in over the past few seasons. Yahoo became the NFL’s first streaming partner in 2015, while Twitter and CBS All Access (now rebranded as Paramount+) joined the fray in limited capacities in 2016. Amazon has streamed Thursday Night Football games since 2017 as a simultaneous broadcast (“simulcast”) with the NFL’s other major broadcast partners. Streaming has also been available online through FOX Sports and NBC Sports, but these platforms require cable television login credentials.
Now, Amazon becomes the first NFL broadcast partner to have exclusive rights (aside from local TV markets) to a package of games on a digital platform. Its $1 billion deal to air Thursday Night Football on Prime Video may be ushering in a new era where streaming services are the NFL’s dominant broadcast method. NFL chief media and business officer Brian Rolapp said that bringing high-level broadcasts to digital devices is a priority. Indeed, the NFL’s longtime broadcast partners can now also simulcast games on their own streaming services like ESPN+ (ESPN), Paramount+ (CBS), Tubi (FOX), and Peacock (NBC).
Additionally, there will likely be an increase in alternate presentations from these broadcast partners. CBS saw huge success with its kid-friendly Nickelodeon broadcast during the 2020 playoffs. Amazon offers an interactive Prime viewing experience with on-demand highlights and advanced statistics. And ESPN’s innovative MegaCast features dozens of commentators on concurrent broadcasts, catering to audiences with diverse viewing preferences.
These new initiatives should help broaden the NFL’s viewership by attracting a younger audience. The average NFL viewer is 50 years old—up 1.3 years from 2019—compared to the NBA’s 42- and soccer’s 39-year-old average fan. By age group, 18-to-34-year-olds are among the least likely to be avid NFL fans and among the most likely to not be fans at all.
The NFL likely had this in mind while negotiating the new deal. For the first time in 2019, more Americans paid for streaming services than for cable television. At the time, 88% of millennials (ages 22 to 35) subscribed to internet streaming services while only 51% subscribed to cable or satellite, with a similar breakdown amongst Generation Z (ages 14 to 21). In 2020, only 35% of millennials and Gen-Z self-reported watching sports via TV broadcast. A product more accessible through younger generations’ preferred viewing platforms should help the NFL’s attempt to cement itself as the dominant sport across all age groups.
Further, illegal sports streams are estimated to cost American sports leagues billions of dollars (despite only 5% of respondents to a 2020 poll admitting that piracy is their preferred method of watching sports). Leagues have struggled to combat this effectively, but it is believed that the availability of legal streams and more interactive viewing experiences will attract would-be pirates to instead use legitimate services.
With the NFL having signed a new Collective Bargaining Agreement last March that increases the players’ share of revenue by 1.5%, the windfall due the NFL as a result of this new media deal is expected to skyrocket player salaries accordingly. By 2023, each team’s salary cap could jump from its current $182.5 million value to as much as $230 million, which would be the largest two-year increase in NFL history (see past cap numbers here and here).
It is no secret that NFL viewership has declined in recent years, and the league suffered a roughly $4 billion loss in a 2020 season fraught with COVID-19 and election coverage. Yet NFL football remains America’s top television program and favorite sport by a large margin. That gap should continue to widen as the NFL embraces shifts in the media landscape, including accessible streams and unique broadcasts, boosting national viewership across the board.
Alexander Amir is a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, where he serves as an Editor and Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.