Brian Rolapp Carves Out New Playing Fields for NFL Game Rights

Brian Rolapp
weston wells for Variety

The next time you settle down on a Sunday to watch NFL football for free on Fox, CBS or NBC, you might want to offer thanks to Brian Rolapp.

As the National Football League’s executive vice president of media, Rolapp has a great deal of influence over where those games are seen. The league’s megabucks rights deals with CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN run through 2022, but in the interim, Rolapp has begun to experiment in hopes of finding the best way to get football to a public that is quickly adopting new forms of mobile and streaming consumption.

His handiwork can be seen in the new deal that puts a “Thursday Night Football” package on CBS, NBC and, interestingly, Twitter. The pact gives incentives to two big TV networks yet at the same time lets the NFL try to experiment with new media to gain a better understanding of how a new generation of fans will watch gridiron contests.

Rolapp discussed the future of digital distribution and offered other insights in his recent conversation with Variety‘s Brian Steinberg.

Why Twitter? Why is it a better choice for this Thursday night game digital option compared to, say, Facebook, or even a traditional media company’s own operations?

We liked the idea that they were very mobile focused. Our whole philosophy entering into these Thursday-night negotiations is that we could use digital to drive incremental consumption, not cannibalize it, but increase it. That’s where people are — on mobile. People who are detached from home, detached from pay TV. Mobile is a great place to hit them and Twitter has a very strong mobile presence, which we liked.

How many ways can the NFL parcel the games out and still maintain the audience levels it wants? Is there a concern that football available everywhere is too much football?

If there’s a saturation point, we haven’t seen it. It’s something we think a lot about. Look, we measure our business very simply: Is consumption going up, and are the economics for our partners and us going up? As long as those things are true, we are not at a saturation point.

Is there a concern that splitting the Thursday night games between two TV networks might create confusion for viewers and fans? How will you make sure they know to change networks?

Before we went into this series of deals we are in now, we asked a lot of those same questions, but we also committed ourselves not to think conventionally. We just think it’s a day and age when change is so rapid and constant that thinking conventionally could limit our alternatives and our progress. There are a couple of things in the past few years that told us this consumer confusion, while a risk, didn’t overly concern us. When we did “Thursday Night Football” with CBS, where we put half the games on CBS and half on the NFL Network, what we saw that consumption on both platforms went up…. People will find it. In a world where things are so fragmented and NFL football is maybe the only thing that can aggregate large audiences, they will find it. Between having a broadcast component and a pay-TV component and a digital component, people will find it.

The current TV rights contracts are in place until about 2022, but what kind of a world does the NFL see at the end of that time? How do you think your core fan will be consuming the sport?

If I told you the answer, I’d be lying to you, because I don’t know. What we do know is that the world will be very different. We think the trends we are seeing now will hold. Fans will continue to be digital. They will continue to be more mobile. They will continue to be more social in how they engage with content. I don’t think that is going to change, and that’s going to be accentuated by the fact that this younger generation — and specifically the millennials — is going to continue to grow. We see that as an opportunity. I do think digital players will be stronger. What role will they play? Will they have all of the rights? Will they have some of the rights? I cannot answer. I do think that television isn’t going away. Television, and broadcast specifically, will play a very strong role. But I think it will be different. These Thursday packages are giving us a lot of the learnings we need in order to prepare for that time.

Your games help support the economic underpinnings of major media companies like Comcast, CBS Corp., 21st Century Fox and Disney. Is it easy to consider the prospect that you may have to pull rights to games in order to distribute them differently?

Look, the partners we have have been great partners, and we have built the sport on broadcast television and reach is still very important. We still think the best way to get reach for our NFL games is broadcast television. Nothing has supplanted that, and I don’t think it’s a binary decision to go to television or go to digital. And I think the companies will be much different. If you spend time with the leadership of these companies, they will tell you their companies will look much different in five years. That’s an eternity in media.

As sports rights fees become more costly, we’ve seen media companies willing to split rights, as CBS and Time Warner have for March Madness. Do you expect to have to enter into deals that will split games across multiple media partners – more than you have now?

Rolapp: I think that all remains to be seen. I think we will always pursue the strategies that are able to increase our ability to aggregate audiences. That’s essentially the business we’re in. What that looks like – does that mean splitting the rights up among different partners?  Does that mean giving our current partners more rights? I don’t know what kinds of business they will be in. I don’t know what kinds of businesses they will own.

Would you be willing to sacrifice a big crowd for partners that can deliver a more engaged consumer?

Throughout the years, we have resisted trading off reach for something of lesser value. I don’t ever see us sacrificing reach for things of lesser value, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s a binary decision. You have to have both — what you do digitally and what you do to reach mass audiences. What we are doing with Thursday night is a good example.