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Increased viewership ups the stakes for the NFL's broadcast rights

Illustration of a football player with an NFL tag
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Viewership of televised NFL games was up 5% to 16.5 million for the 2019 regular season, its second consecutive annual increase of 5%.

Why it matters: The rebound in viewership from previous two years will give the NFL higher leverage when negotiating new distribution deals with media partners.

By the numbers: Currently, the NFL gets around $1 billion annually from each the three broadcast networks (CBS, FOX and NBC) that air Sunday games, over $1 billion from ESPN to air Monday night games and around $1.5 billion from AT&T's DirecTV to distribute its Sunday Ticket package.

The big picture: Most of the NFL's current media deals expire in 2022.

  • Its Monday Night Football deal with ESPN expires next year and it's possible that the league will begin announcing new distribution partners this year.
  • Experts predict that the deal prices will go up significantly in the next round of negotiations.

Between the lines: There have been lots of end-of-year predictions about who is poised to nab NFL rights when the current slate of rights soon expire.

  • Monday Night Football: LightShed Partner and media analyst Rich Greenfield predicts the NFL will only allow ESPN to renew Monday Night Football "with Disney agreeing to simulcast on ABC" to increase the programming’s reach and value.
  • NFL Sunday Ticket: AT&T COO John Stankey said last September that the telecom giant would consider dropping its exclusive rights to the NFL's Sunday Ticket package.
  • YouTube, which has bid on the package before, will likely place a bid, but given the fact that the package features most Sunday NFL games, it's likely the NFL won't shift the deal from a television company.
  • Global streaming service DAZN, which is currently raising lots of money for rights acquisitions, will come close to picking up rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, Sports Business Journal media reporter John Ourand predicts.
  • Sunday afternoons: Greenfield predicts that CBS will lose Sunday afternoon NFL rights to either NBC or ABC, given price increases, and that Fox will retain its rights. ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said in December that the NFL has “a great deal of faith in CBS” and that Viacom's international reach could help them retain rights.

Yes, but: CBS may have a chunk of cash ready to place a competitive bid, given that Ourand reports it's likely CBS "will walk away from the SEC when its contract ends after the 2023 football season." Ourand reports that all indications are that the package will move to ESPN/ABC.

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