CBS will stream select NFL games this season for free. All of CBS’ playoff matchups — AFC divisional and championship games and Super Bowl 50 — as well as Jets vs. Dolphins in London and Panthers vs. Cowboys on Thanksgiving will be available to fans via CBS streaming up without charge. As cable and broadcast networks struggle with losing millennials to the cord-cutting phenomenon, the move to stream games for free — and out of market — could be a sign of things to come in the new media age. Yahoo! is already set to stream a Bills vs. Jaguars game in Week 7.
Before everyone gets excited, this is not a huge change in how NFL games will be distributed nationwide. CBS already owned the rights to these games and they were set to be the nationally televised games for out-of-market broadcasts. DirecTV — now merged with AT&T — has exclusive rights for the NFL Sunday Ticket package until 2022, when all current media deals with the NFL will expire.
There was some confusion — and excitement — when this was tweeted out by CNBC now:
because some people thought this meant ALL CBS games. That is simply not the case and wouldn’t make sense for CBS, the NFL or DirecTV. TV rights is by far the biggest money maker for the NFL, and angering its current partners wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest. Only select games will be streamed but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a signal for things to come.
This is a test run for CBS, and there is no better way to test what type of streaming numbers it can get than testing with live football games. This way CBS not only receives viewership from traditional television viewers, but also from the growing cord-cutter segment. It is better to mess up on a small scale than it would be with a full roll out.
If CBS is successful, and streaming is deemed to be a reliable and profitable way to distribute games, it could change how Sunday Ticket and other games are distributed in the future. It just won’t happen until DirecTV makes that decision with Sunday Ticket or until rights deals are renegotiated in 2022.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.