How Apple Can Make Sunday Ticket Work

Apple NFL Sunday Ticket
Illustration: Variety Intelligence Platform; Adobe Stock

If reports are to be believed, Apple is the successful bidder for the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package, paying at least $500M more a year for the rights for a total worth over $2 billion annually.

This represents a significant coup for Apple, which only recently entered the live sports business with its “Friday Night Baseball” MLB deal. Adding Sunday Ticket, which allows for audiences to watch live out-of-market NFL games (network TV viewers can only view the games with their local teams as well as national games), means Apple will have rights to two out of three of America’s national sports.

Yet the deal is a risk for Apple. While DirecTV never released subscriber counts for Sunday Ticket, it would not have passed on the rights held since 1994 if it was profit making. It was estimated in 2021 that Sunday Ticket had around 2 million subscribers, which would yield $600 million in subscriptions. Even factoring in expensive licenses for bars and restaurants, it is likely Sunday Ticket cost DirecTV around $500M a year.

With the annual rights cost increasing by 33%, Apple will need to see a significant increase in the number of subscribers for the package to 6.7 million in order for it to break even. But that assumes Apple is looking to sell Sunday Ticket as a separate product or add-on for Apple TV+.

It’s far more likely that Apple views Sunday Ticket as a means to propel subscriptions of its SVOD service to the next level. Framing the deal as a content investment designed to net more subscribers, and not as a subscription service in its own right, totally upends assumptions made for the deal.

Instead of needing close to 7 million subscribers paying $300 a year, Apple instead is looking to attract audiences and expose them to other content on the service in the hopes of seeing some stick around once the regular NFL season ends in early January.

It’s no different from how NBCU uses the Olympics to boost Peacock — and note that the Olympics cost $1.29 billion per games (amortized to $646 million per year for a tournament that lasts a couple of weeks every two years).

This speaks to the heart of why Apple is going for the Sunday Ticket business and not, as VIP+ suggested last year, the digital media NFL rights that are also up for grabs. Apple needs subscribers for Apple TV+. That it doesn’t currently release any subscriber updates during quarterly earnings calls suggests it's not comfortable with its current subscriber rates when compared with those for Hulu, Disney+, Paramount+ and Netflix.

Sunday Ticket represents a way to bump subscribers were Apple to eat the cost and use it as content acquisition. VIP+ estimates that the market for Sunday Ticket would grow from 2 million to at least 10 million were it to fall in price from $300 a year to $4.99 a month, or even an additional $5-$10 per month on top of a base subscription.

It’s unlikely that making Sunday Ticket available en masse would upset the apple cart of traditional TV rights for the NFL. Most games available on Sunday Ticket are played in the local window on Sundays (1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT), with considerably fewer available — typically 3 or 4 — in the national game-of-the-week slot that alternates between Fox and CBS at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT. There are no other games played when NBC airs "Sunday Night Football."

When eyed through the lens of a content acquisition and not as a distinctive sell-on business, Apple’s purported Sunday Ticket gain is a smart play. It will give Apple TV+ instant credibility in millions more homes and also help sate Apple’s desire to be seen as a force in the sports world, matching Amazon in a key part of entertainment.

While the two companies compete for prestigious movie and TV awards for high-end content, sports is a way to be relevant to the masses and there’s no greater sport in the U.S. to achieve that than the NFL.