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What’s next on sports’ digital horizon?

Potential, complexties abound for pro games on alternative platforms

The National Football League scored a two-point conversion for its digital programming future last month.

Inside of a single December week came a pair of major announcements: the signing of nine-year TV rights extensions with CBS, Fox and NBC worth approximately $27 billion, and a deal to stream February’s Super Bowl XLVI live on digital platforms for the first time.

The timing might have been coincidental, but the reason isn’t.

Football’s growing importance to American airwaves is extending to alternative distribution platforms — as is also the case with Major League Baseball and the Natl. Basketball Assn.

The caveat: Expansion comes at a time of great complexity, with present-day rights divided up amongst a roster of broadcast players and a future guaranteed to provide unpredictable twists.

“It’s an exciting time as there is still a great unknown of what’s to come regarding digital distribution of sports, but you can tap into today’s trends to get an idea of where things are going,” NBC Sports digital general manager Rick Cordella said.

Those arrows are pointing up, with network research repeatedly concluding that the digital realm enhances the broadcast audience rather than cannibalizing it. That includes the ability to view games out of the living room but also, perhaps more than one might expect, the benefits of providing more context for couch potatoes.

“You see it already,” Cordella said. “You look at Internet searches — when a player makes a big play, the searches for him spike.”

While the first Super Bowl stream is a milestone, there’s plenty of room for digital growth.

“We’re really excited about what has been a fairly steady evolution,” said NFL senior VP of media strategy and development Hans Schroeder. “This is all about driving incremental consumption.”

Each traditional broadcaster has responded with different degrees to the newest opportunities and challenges.

With the NFL, NBC has been the most proactive, offering digital streams of “Sunday Night Football” since 2008 and having the kind of success that clearly encouraged the Peacock to move forward with streams of the Super Bowl, which will be shown online at NFL.com and NBCSports.com.

NBC says its digital consumption in terms of minutes used is up 59% year-to-year.

But illustrating the nuances at play, NBC has rights to stream its games on tablet browsers — but not tablet apps — until 2014, when the Peacock’s new rights agreement with the NFL kicks in. As far as cellphones, the NFL itself retains rights through its existing mobile distribution agreement with Verizon Wireless, the NFL’s official wireless sponsor through a four-year deal inked in 2010, and valued at $720 million.

ESPN, which in November signed an extension of its NFL deal through 2021, can make “Monday Night Football” available only on a desktop computer or via a tablet app, but not on mobile, where the NFL-Verizon arrangement takes precedence.

In short, put your iPad and iPhone side-by-side, and you’ll have two different deals guiding Monday night games to them, creating a somewhat cumbersome viewing experience.

CBS and Fox are lagging in digital distribution, but Schroeder expects them to catch up, once they solve the complexities of their largely regionalized daytime game offerings.

“It’s pretty easy to identify someone in the New York area rather than the L.A. area,” Schroeder said. “What’s more difficult is if you’re in a car going up (Interstate) 95 and you get near Hartford, and Hartford has a different game than New York does. You have to make sure digitally you’re respecting (boundaries).”

Not to be ignored in this is the NFL and its NFL Network, which streams games through Verizon. NFL Mobile has 5 million subs, only a portion of which also take the premium content of Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday night games.

Schroeder noted that “part of the reason we took the eight games back on the NFL Network in 2006 is we knew the world was going to change” in terms of how games are consumed.

The NFL has also used the global market, for which it owns and distributes all the rights for its games, as combination revenue generator and laboratory for testing future possibilities.

MLB and the NBA find themselves in different streaming situations than the NFL because there are so many professional baseball and basketball games that aren’t covered by national TV deals.

MLB retained much of its digital universe by coalescing its digital rights in a spinoff company, MLB Advanced Media, that launched in 2001. The sport offers virtually every out-of-market game digitally, save blackout conflicts such as Saturday games that would interfere with Fox’s national over-the-air contract or ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball.”

The league has clearly found a digital audience.

MLB.tv, which charged customers $99.99 for a season’s worth of its basic service, passed the 1 billion mark in live streams in 2010, and the rate is rising fast. There have been more than 500 million live streams in the past two seasons.

During its abbreviated 2011-12 season, the NBA is offering 40 games per week in its out-of-market package that, for the first time, combines live broadcasts on mobile and broadband, for a total of $169.

“It’s about making sure people have the ability to watch games anytime they want anywhere they want,” said NBA digital general manager Christina Miller, who is also Turner Sports senior VP of strategy, marketing and promotions.Miller notes that staying abreast of tech developments is as big a challenge as any faced by the digital distributors of sports.

“It’s innovation, it’s technology, it’s understanding what’s out there and what’s going to best satisfy the fans,” Miller said. “Trying to stay focused and innovative at the same time is definitely something to keep in mind.”

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