Let’s be honest: For all of its success as a business, it’s hard to be impressed with the NFL’s digital presence. Good luck using its overdesigned, slow-loading website to find video highlights of your favorite team’s last game.
But little by little, the NFL has opened up its assets to digital experimentation. In January, it finally launched a YouTube channel. And on Oct. 25, it will live stream on Yahoo the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars game taking place in London.
The glacial pace at which the NFL moves into digital is deliberate, said Blake Stuchin, director of digital media and business development at the NFL. He spoke last Tuesday at an Advertising Week panel hosted by link recommendation engine Taboola.
“When we look at digital video and live streaming, it’s definitely the future,” he said.
However, linear TV still pays massive dividends. Last fall, 45 of the top 50 rated shows were NFL games.
“That’s a pretty meaningful audience we want to make sure we’re thinking about, with our partners in mind,” Stuchin said.
The NFL wants to grow that audience and migrate to digital platforms, but at the same time moving too quickly would undermine its more traditional and highly lucrative channels.
After all, the NFL has broadcast deals through 2021 – and Stuchin doesn’t anticipate paid TV going away any time soon.
“Any historic media change or disruption, the story takes a while to play out,” he said.
For instance, broadcasters used to worry that highlights played on ESPN would take audience away from games. Broadcasters were similarly fearful of NFL RedZone, a game-day product that lets viewers see only the most exciting parts of games commercial-free.
Those fears proved unfounded, and NFL game ratings continued to rise.
But given the number of interested and affected parties, it makes sense for these deals to move slowly.
Troy Ewanchyna, VP and GM of NBCSports.com, recalled a 2012 London Olympics deal between NBC and YouTube, which acted as both a tech partner and an audience driver, sending people to NBC-owned portals.
“We’re at the finish line with a new YouTube deal,” he said. “But it took us three years to do. We have 18 different internal stakeholders who will weigh in on all parts of the deal.”
Consequently, Ewanchyna understands the NFL’s conservatism when it comes to pushing into digital.
“There’s too much at stake,” he said. “If you’re making billions and billions of dollars, getting a guaranteed check from someone who’s willing to bundle content and make it available, it’s very risky to move away from that. It might be easier with the WWE, which doesn’t have as much at stake as our friends at the NFL do.”
That’s why, for institutions like the NFL, digital is primarily a place to cultivate and retain audiences.
“Things happening that don’t make it into the broadcasts, the barbecues and tailgates,” Stuchin said. “All of that stuff our fans would like to see more of but we haven’t had a natural home for it over the years.”