It’s no secret that the National Football League is protective of its shield. The strength of the league’s brand and image is why the league office strictly enforces on-field uniform attire. It’s why players and coaches are often suspended for poor off-field decision making even before courtroom proceedings are concluded. And why broadcasting rights are negotiated only with major networks on rare occasions. So, when the NFL somewhat quietly announced a partnership with Yahoo this past summer, an exciting new door in sports media creaked open.

The October 25th Bills vs. Jaguars game from London was live streamed on a handful of Yahoo properties—Yahoo, Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Screen (yes, that’s a real thing) and Tumblr. The game was also televised for fans in Buffalo and Jacksonville but was otherwise available only on Yahoo. This first-ever partnership let fans around the world watch the game for free and allowed the NFL to test this medium on a grand scale. First, two perspectives on why this finally happened.

Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner says: “The NFL has always been committed to being at the forefront of media innovation. Through this partnership with Yahoo — one of the world’s most recognizable digital brands — we are taking another important step in that direction…”

Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo says: “We’re thrilled that the NFL has chosen Yahoo for this historic opportunity. It marks a significant change in the way users can access this amazing content. The NFL and Yahoo have both long engaged football fans around the world…”

So, did Roger Goodell see the viewership numbers and fan approval he anticipated? Did Yahoo leadership get the exposure and brand bump it badly needs? The answer to these questions demands a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis because solely judging viewership numbers clouds the conclusion:

  • 33.6 million total streams
  • 15.2 million unique people exposed to the stream
  • 2.36 million in average viewership per minute

The variety in those numbers is staggering. The first two feel embellished, most useful for headlines and press releases. 33.6 million total streams include page reloads and people who left the stream and returned later. It doesn’t capture the all important “unique visitor” traffic. 15.2 million includes people visiting the Yahoo! homepage. That’s misleading because the homepage auto-played the game upon arrival wholly inflating true game views. The last number, 2.36 million, feels the most accurate when comparing viewership to traditional television numbers. According to CNN, afternoon and evening NFL games on TV average 10 to 20 million viewers per minute so, in comparison, 2.36 million might feel like a failed outcome. But consider the context around that number.

The Yahoo live stream was for a London game. That could affect things—it’s really early in the morning throwing off fans normal pre-game routines. But the prior week’s London game, Dolphins vs. Jets, aired traditionally on CBS with almost 10 million viewers. When comparing digital to television in these two like cases, the Yahoo-streamed Bills vs. Jaguars game still fell short. You really only understand how successful this venture was by seeing how the game compares to past history in the same medium. This was the most successful live streaming event in internet history. And that’s what counts.

The NFL didn’t need internet traffic numbers to exceed, or even match, television broadcast numbers for this to be considered a successful endeavor. The league had to find out if a significant number of fans would try it out. They did. And they wanted to see if a major digital content site like Yahoo could handle the traffic while presenting a mostly clean viewing experience. Despite some grumbles the Yahoo presentation faired well. Roger Goodell’s approval rating among fans, players and even owners may not be very high right now. But he’s a progressive businessman, realizing that the right digital broadcast deal will bring additional revenue streams to everyone linked to the league. This game was just the first step in the beginning of a search for the best digital business model. It was a pronouncement that the NFL is ready to talk about its next content distribution deal. The final online streaming implementation might include another Yahoo team up, a partnership with MLB Advanced Media—the shop that created MLB Network, HBO Now and WWE Network—or even an NFL-built technology. No matter where the tech resides, this is just the first of many times NFL games will be seen online.

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