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Why Facebook Wants NFL’s Thursday Night Football Live Games

Verizon, Amazon seen as other two leading candidates for over-the-top football package

Is Facebook ready for some football?

The social-media colossus is entering the scrum for global live-streaming rights to a selection of the National Football League’s 2016-17 games, anchored by next season’s “Thursday Night Football” matchups, according to three people familiar with Facebook’s plans. Recode previously reported Facebook’s interest in obtaining the NFL rights.

Facebook’s deal to stream pro-football games, if consummated, would mark its first major TV content deal. “It would be a watershed moment. The NFL is the marquee media property,” said VideoNuze analyst Will Richmond, who added that he has no direct knowledge of Facebook’s NFL ambitions.

Over the past two years, Facebook has been aggressively building out video features on the service. But in the past execs have said the focus would be on short-form content. “You are not going to come to Facebook to watch a movie or a TV show — that’s long-form stuff,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg told investors in 2014.

What’s changed? Facebook is now more willing to experiment and invest in premium media content to showcase its live streaming capabilities, according to an industry source: “Facebook Live is a priority for them now.”

And sports, in particular, are huge on Facebook: The company estimates 650 million of its users worldwide are sports fans. The NFL games also would dovetail very nicely with the recently launched Facebook Stadium, a hub that aggregates content and fan discussion about live sporting events.

Facebook and the NFL declined to comment.

Amazon.com and Verizon — which currently holds exclusive smartphone rights for NFL games through next season — are also among the parties seeking to grab the NFL’s 18-game OTT package, as previously reported by Variety. Amazon and Verizon are seen as the two other serious contenders with Facebook, sources said.

Apple, which had originally been keen to pick up the football package, is said to have cooled on the idea. Google, at this point, has not shown a desire to pay for NFL or any other live sports rights, according to sources.

The league is still in the process of collecting bids for the “TNF” streaming rights and still has a number of options for deals with distribution partners, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.

If Facebook does in fact bid for the NFL games, “That is a clear signal that it is moving beyond pure (user-generated content) with a goal of becoming a full-fledged media company,” said Peter Csathy, CEO of Manatt Digital Media, a business consulting and legal services firm.

Showing how hungry it is to expand the amount of high-profile live video distributed on Facebook, top execs this week met with Hollywood agencies and other companies to encourage more celebrities and media firms to use Facebook Live. It’s already been at work recruiting partners: For example, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences used Facebook Live to exclusively deliver red-carpet and backstage moments for this past Sunday’s Oscars.

But there’s a catch with the OTT rights the NFL is offering: Mobile is off the table, because Verizon Wireless has those locked up for at least one more year. Distributors will have rights for Web, connected-TV and tablet devices. For Facebook, that would reduce the value of those rights, given its heavy mobile focus — the company generated 80% of its ad revenue for the fourth quarter of 2015.

Verizon, for its part, wants to bring “Thursday Night Football” games to Go90, its free, ad-supported mobile video service, according to a source.

“Facebook is all about mobile,” Richmond said. “If Facebook isn’t getting mobile rights to the package, it would greatly diminish the value of the NFL deal.”

Another factor that will tamp down the OTT price tag for “TNF”: In the U.S., the NFL has sold the TV rights to CBS and NBC, which have five games apiece. Eight other games to be broadcast only on NFL Network will comprise Thursday night games, late-season Saturday match-ups and other games. And those networks all have rights to stream the games to U.S. pay-TV subscribers on an authenticated basis. Separately, CBS is talking to the NFL about expanding its distribution rights to include the CBS All Access subscription-streaming service starting next season.

Those factors make the “TNF” bundle different from the NFL’s first run at OTT. Last October, Yahoo had exclusive worldwide digital rights to the Oct. 25 Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game played in London. On TV, it was broadcast only in the teams’ local markets and in the U.K. Yahoo is interested in the “TNF” package but likely won’t be among the final bidders, one source said.

And what about YouTube? Google recently launched YouTube Red, an ad-free service with no ads, unlimited music and a selection of original content for $10 per month. For now, sports isn’t part of the plan for YouTube Red, with the company focused on producing scripted and unscripted material with homegrown digital talent. It’s worth noting that YouTube live-streamed a German soccer match in August last year in the U.S. under a partnership with Fox Sports; however, no rights fees were involved.

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