NFL plans to stream Thursday Night Football online from next season

© Eric Thaer
US TV networks and digital media powerhouses look are set for a bidding war after the NFL sent out a formal request for proposals for its 'Thursday Night Football' package.

The NFL's initial plan would see digital streams act as a simulcast of the television production – with the same in-game production features and advertisements.

CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC and Turner have all been invited to bid, and despite earlier predictions that NFL would pursue a long-term, multi-year deal, the RFP outlines the league's plan to sell a one-year deal with an option for a second year with a nominal escalator on the rights fee.

The NFL has also invited several digital companies including Google, Yahoo, Apple and Amazon, to stream the entire Thursday night schedule online on a non-exclusive basis. The digital streaming is initially expected to be a simulcast of the live TV production – featuring the same advertisements and in-game production features.

As in previous years, the NFL expects the winning bidder to produce all 16 games, even those that would be carried exclusively on the NFL Network. The NFL Network would simulcast games from the winning bidder and carry eight games produced by the winning bidder exclusively on its own, as part of a bid to grow the NFL Network.
The league expects bidding to start in the low $300 million range for the television package, with a nominal rise in the fee for the second year.

CBS is currently paying $300 million this season for the eight-game package, an increase from last year's $275 million deal. The bidding war could push the price as high as $600 million per year as the NFL looks to bring Thursday Night Football in line with its other offerings.

ESPN currently holds the rights for Monday Night Football in an eight-year, $15.2 billion deal that runs until 2021, while contracts for Sunday afternoon games on CBS and Fox and NBC's Sunday Night Football expire in 2022.

Last year, Thursday Night Football averaged around 12 million viewers per game on CBS and NFL Network, where they are simulcasted, compared to CBS' Sunday afternoon package which averaged 18.7 million viewers last season.

Growing worldwide interest in the NFL makes the Thursday night package an attractive proposition for networks, with a record 21 million viewers watching this season's opener between Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs proof of the potential value to the winning bidder. 

While it is not clear what the league can expect to earn from the digital streaming rights, it's worth noting that while Yahoo paid around $15 million for the streaming rights to the Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars game played in London this October. That was an exclusive basis, but the numbers from the game highlight the online possibilities. 

The Wembley Stadium fixture attracted 33.6m streams and over 15.2m unique viewers tuning in for one of the largest live streamed sporting events in history. Fans streamed over 460 million total minutes of the game via various devices, with 33% of those streams done internationally, across 185 countries worldwide. 

In a recent interview with Re/Code, NFL Network CEO Brian Rolapp said, "We are talking to numerous people – both traditional media companies and some of the Internet guys. 

"I think there will be a heavy digital component for Thursday. It is just a question of what the model will be and how we will do it." 

The league can expect to receive the bids shortly after the New Year, with a decision likely to come before expected to come before Super Bowl 50.

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