NFL’s Black Friday game is the latest warning sign for traditional TV

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The Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets face off in the National Football League’s first ever Black Friday game this week — but it’s not going to be the usual broadcast or cable offering. The game will stream exclusively on Amazon’s Prime Video.

The NFL’s decision to start a new Thanksgiving tradition with a streaming platform instead of a broadcast or cable channel is yet another indicator of trouble for linear, or traditional, TV, which has suffered from slumping ad revenue and customers cutting the cable cord.

The Black Friday matchup is an expansion of Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football” deal with the NFL, which has helped drive a 6% jump in NFL viewership since last year. And with the game streaming the day after Thanksgiving, Amazon could capture some of the holiday viewership, which broke records last year.

“I don’t make predictions on ratings,” Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin this week. “But I think they’ll be good.” The Black Friday game kicks off at 3 p.m. ET.

Thanksgiving Day is already a football tradition, with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys headlining matchups through the years. Fox, CBS and NBC all will broadcast games on the holiday.

The NFL and Amazon hope the Black Friday game will become an annual tradition, executives said Tuesday at a media conference. In a push to drive Amazon e-commerce sales, the streaming broadcast will feature QR codes at the bottom of the screen that will link to some of Amazon’s Black Friday deals. Country music icon Garth Brooks will take the stage in an exclusive postgame concert.

Amazon’s 11-year “Thursday Night Football” deal and YouTube TV’s “NFL Sunday Ticket” package are just a few examples of live sports programming making the jump from cable to streaming. In October, Warner Bros. Discovery rolled out its Bleacher Report Sports Add-On Tier for the company’s flagship streaming platform Max, offering subscribers hundreds of live sports events.

ESPN’s pivot

ESPN has long ruled sports programming on traditional TV. But that could all change when the cable stalwart brings all its programming to streaming, in a planned direct-to-consumer release.

Yet even as the streaming trend picks up, sports programming is helping keep cable and traditional TV alive, for the moment.

Earlier this year, data firm Nielsen reported that traditional TV made up less than half of overall TV usage in July. But linear popped back in August and September. The jump was largely driven by the return of college and professional football, Nielsen said in a report released last month. ESPN also snagged the top 11 telecasts for the month of September, 10 of which were football-related.

ESPN has so far weathered the storm of the TV decline, capturing a “modest increase” in ad revenue in parent company Disney’s most recent quarterly report, even as overall TV revenue for the company fell.

Sports programming is holding the linear television industry together, according to Macquarie analyst Tim Nollen. And ESPN is a huge part of that.

But ESPN’s dominance in sports programming could pose a potentially fatal threat to linear TV. When ESPN unleashes its direct-to-consumer service, which would offer much more than its current ESPN+ app, it could be the push sports fans are waiting for to abandon the bundle altogether.

“When ESPN puts their DTC product online, depending on the pricing, it may create a critical mass of live sports outside of the bundle to accelerate cord cutting,” said UBS media and telecom analyst John Hodulik. “That’s what I think people are waiting for.”

Disney CEO Bob Iger told CNBC’s Boorstin on Nov. 8 that Disney will launch a direct-to-consumer ESPN flagship no later than 2025, putting the sports programming world on notice.

But not everyone is convinced that ESPN’s foray into streaming will do too much damage too quickly.

“When you look at the economics that ESPN gets from the pay TV bundle, they cannot just step away and pirouette to DTC and everything stays the same,” said sports media consultant and former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes. “There’s no DTC streaming product that scales like pay TV, even today, with pay TV in decline.”

The future looks more like a reimagined pay TV bundle, Crakes said, with streaming products included in the traditional economics of bundle. It’s reminiscent of the recent Disney-Charter agreement, in which Disney+ and ESPN+ are now included in some Spectrum cable packages.

But challenges could lie ahead for media companies that have not yet made the jump to bring their programming to the streaming world.

How vulnerable is Fox?

A FOX Sports TV camera operator during the week 5 NFL game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 11, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
David J. Griffin | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

The biggest loser of the slowing ad market will be Fox, Macquarie’s Nollen said. (Macquarie Group and its affiliates own a net long of 0.5% or more of the equity securities of Fox Corp.)

Other media companies, including NBCUniversal through its Peacock service, have pivoted in large part to streaming ventures, where ad revenue through those platforms can partially offset the slump in linear. The problem with Fox? It doesn’t have a streaming platform beyond its free, ad-supported service Tubi.

“Fox made the decision to double down on the bundle a few years ago and then they’ve done surprisingly well for it,” said Nollen. “But if cord-cutting accelerates and everyone picks up streaming sports elsewhere, I just don’t understand what Fox’s plan is.”

When asked for comment, Fox referenced a quote made by Fox Corp. CFO Steve Tomsic at the Bank of America media conference in September.

“I can see a world where the ESPNs of this world do go DTC, but I’m not sure how impactful that will be for us or the entire industry,” he said. “If there is the emergence of some sort of sports bundle that is across different network providers, then the first port of call is going to be Fox in terms of people wanting to aggregate our content with their service just given how strong our sports offering is.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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