Why Won’t the NFL Let the Streamers Stream?

A cable video camera system hangs over a football field Photograph by Icon SMI/Corbis

As a Cleveland Browns fan, I’m always waiting for “next year,” when two wonderful things will finally happen:

1. The Browns will win more than six games. This could be the year! I mean, Brandon Weeden has looked very good in the preseason, and we have a very promising offensive line (except for the guards).

2. The NFL will come up with a reasonable way for an out-of-town fan like me to pay to watch games on the Internet.

Both of these things seem inevitable—it’s just a matter of time. The NFL is set up for bad teams to become good. And as for streaming, well, every other league allows people to pay to watch out-of-market games online. All it takes to stream baseball, basketball, or hockey on your TV is a bit of cash and an Apple TV, Xbox, or Roku.

I get it. The rights to show pro football are fundamentally more valuable than those for other sports. NFL games are regularly the highest-rated programs on the market, and the league has its television distribution deals to think about. But it seems like its exclusive deal for streaming rights with DirecTV is not long for this world. DirecTV pays $1 billion a year under the current contract and is balking at renewing the deal when it expires at the end of next season. Distribution deals for NFL games just get more expensive: According to Adweek, the league’s television partners paid about 75 percent more for their latest distribution deals than they did from 2006 to 2013.

And the value for broadcast rights is only going to increase once Trent Richardson and the Browns get rolling!

When asked about the NFL during a recent earnings call, DirecTV Chief Executive Officer Michael White said the company is negotiating an extension but remains focused on other things, like launching new ads and promoting DirecTV’s iPad app. Meanwhile, AllThingsD.com reported on Monday that Google and the NFL have had preliminary talks about streaming rights.

Yes, please.

As it stands, the NFL is barely exploring the potential in the online market. Now, DirecTV does offer a streaming service—sort of. The company isn’t opposed to people watching games on a computer or a mobile device so long as they also pay for satellite dishes. It is possible to get the streaming service without a dish, if you tell DirecTV that you have some special circumstance preventing you from doing so. Of course, the company doesn’t just come out and say this. Last year it took me awhile to find out where I could sign up for the deal. I finally found the link, which went to a page buried on DirecTV’s own website, on a chat room for Buffalo Bills fans. I paid my $250, and the service worked, but grudgingly. The tablet application blocked access to Apple TV, and the streams tended to be much lower-quality than similar services for the NBA and MLB.

This year there’s also an offer for the streaming-only NFL service for people who buy a special edition of the latest Madden video game for $100. Of course, the deal was couched in such mealy-mouthed language that Owen Good, a reporter for the gaming site Kotaku, wasn’t really sure he’d get what he thought he was paying for. Good called up Anthony Stevenson, who does marketing for Madden, and demanded a yes or no answer to whether he’d be able to stream games on his iPad. He didn’t quite get it.

“We absolutely understand there is some confusion with the language and how it is written,” Stevenson told him. “To bring this great deal to life—it’s very complex and complicated, involving the NFL and its television partners, and DirecTV. The reason is because everyone’s interests have to be protected, and this has to be written in a certain way.”

Clearly this is touchy. But in the past year or two the NFL has begun to nibble at the edges, experimenting with streaming where it will not threaten its core moneymakers. The league offers a decent preseason package comparable to what the NBA, NHL, and MLB provide for regular season games, and allows people to subscribe to watch replays of regular season games. And this season the NFL reached a deal with Verizon Wireless that lets the carrier’s subscribers watch some games on their mobile phones, but not their tablets.

A deal with Google, or another Internet company, would be a much bigger breakthrough. Presumably the NFL could sign nonexclusive distribution deals for out-of-market games with a number of companies, while blocking any games that could be watched on television in their local markets. This would bring in a number of new revenue streams while calming fears about cord-cutting from those who pay for broadcast rights.

Looks like 2015 could be a good year. If everything works out as I see it, the Browns will be winning the AFC North—and I’ll be watching them do it from my couch in New York.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.