We now know who will be partnering with the NFL for the league's first-ever global (and completely free) live stream: it's Yahoo. Having come out ahead of Google's YouTube and other video services that reportedly vied for the honor, Yahoo will broadcast the October 25th International Series game between the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars from London's Wembley Stadium. Unless you live in either team's home market, Yahoo will be your one and only option for watching the Week 7 game. Recode reports that Yahoo paid at least $20 million to land the exclusive deal.
The stream will be available across desktop, smartphones, set-top boxes, and smart TVs, and all of Yahoo's biggest properties (Yahoo.com, Yahoo Sports, and Tumblr) will be pointing users to it on game day. You choose how to watch the stream: it'll be accessible by web and also through the company's video-focused apps like Yahoo Screen.
Kickoff is scheduled for 9:30AM ET in the United States, which could lead to smaller ratings than your typical Sunday afternoon game. And yes, there will be ads. Yahoo sees this as a big opportunity to flex its advertising muscle and attract big-name sponsors, and from that perspective you should expect the game to resemble most TV broadcasts in the amount of ads you'll see on screen through four quarters. Both Yahoo and the NFL plan to market this as a monumental moment for the league — because it is.
This is one game you won't see on cable
A promotional image for the NFL's October 25th International Series game
For the NFL: a distribution experiment
TV networks have been live-streaming the Super Bowl to web viewers for several years now, but this marks the first time the NFL itself is taking the plunge and, for one day only, shutting cable partners out of the mix. Realistically speaking, networks like CBS and FOX don't need to worry about losing America's biggest sport to Yahoo, YouTube, or anyone else for many years; they've got rights for Sunday games locked up through 2022. Similarly, ESPN's Monday Night Football is also guaranteed to be a weekly ritual for at least seven more years. If anything, Thursday Night Football presents the best opportunity for streaming services to get into the game. NFL Network airs eight of those games each season, with CBS getting the other half. That arrangement will carry through 2015, but what happens after this year is less certain.
But football isn't leaving your TV
For right now, the International Series presented a unique opportunity for the NFL to make history, even if it's a one-off. "We’ve had national windows before, but not necessarily a global window," said Vishal Shah, the NFL's VP of digital media business development. According to Shah, fans shouldn't notice any difference between this and any other regular season game when it comes to polish and presentation. "It will look and feel and be delivered to the fans traditionally as a high-quality production would go. The talent, the storylines, the knowledge base of both the commentators and the ability to access information are going to be there."
CBS is handling production duties for the football end of things, with Yahoo obviously focused on streaming and promotion. Over a billion people visit Yahoo's various properties each month — with half of those visits from mobile devices. "The expectation is that just given the breadth of the reach and the breadth of the distribution, this really has the potential of being one of the leading live-streaming events that has been delivered via the internet," said Shah. It's a regular season NFL game, after all. People will be watching — even at 9:30 in the morning.
For Yahoo: doing good in the eyes of sports fans (and advertisers)
Yahoo views itself as the NFL's ideal match for numerous reasons. First, it's got enormous global reach as Shah mentioned. Second, it's capable of putting content on just about any platform or device. And third, it's already got a strong connection with sports fans thanks to Yahoo Sports and a massively popular fantasy sports platform with over 16 million loyal users. But even then, the company had to compete for the October 25th game. Yahoo's Adam Cahan told The Verge that the NFL's plan to stream a game worldwide, which was first outlined last year, attracted "active participation by a number of different players." Other sources familiar with the process said that the Silicon Valley mainstays you'd expect were all eager for a chance to be the NFL's link between Wembley and internet users. If YouTube executives are throwing chairs somewhere, the mood is definitely far more celebratory at Yahoo's headquarters.
A huge win for Marissa Mayer's Yahoo
"From our perspective, it’s a really historic event in the sense that it’s the opportunity to bring what is probably the most premier, exclusive content to users for free and really provide an ultimate football experience in that regard," said Cahan, Yahoo's SVP of product and engineering, video, design, and emerging products. "We definitely see this as a historic step in a broader shift," he added. "It’s a very different approach than the NFL has taken in the past. You don’t need any authentication, no cable, none of that. And that’s really exciting to be part of." Yahoo is also very confident that it'll have no problems broadcasting a reliable stream to a global audience. Streaming other massive events like the Royal Wedding, Michael Jackson's funeral, and concerts from Taylor Swift and Dave Matthews have helped the company bolster its native video capabilities.
So after the last whistle is blown, how will the NFL decide whether this over-the-top experiment was a success or failure? "There’s no distinct metric, but for us, our goal and our aspiration is to be one of the leading live events streamed globally," said Shah. "We have very high expectations." Once the NFL season gets underway, the October 25th event will be hard to ignore. Both the NFL and Yahoo plan to promote it constantly, and Cahan said it will be featured front and center on Yahoo's prized home page when the big day rolls around.