I cannot wait to watch the Ravens Defense against the Chiefs Offense this coming Sunday evening. Oh no hang on, Sky Sports have just announced that they’re going to show this game LIVE so my Game Pass subscription is rendered completely redundant for THE showcase game at a sensible hour this weekend…
Another week and another slap in the face to remind me that my outlay of £139.99 will never quite buy me all the NFL games I want to watch. Worse still, it’s never any more than five days before the upcoming schedule when I’m informed that two of the games I’m most looking forward to watching won’t be available to me any longer on Game Pass.
Worse even still, nowhere else in Europe do customers appear to suffer this degradation of the product like we do here in the UK. Do we get a discount for this inconvenience? About £20, which is around a fifth of the cost of a Sky Sports subscription for the four months you’ll need to see all the games.
Blackouts hurt the most in December
The final few weeks of the NFL regular season is when these restrictions are felt the most because the slate is now filled with a bunch of meh games and few must-see crackers like this Sunday at 6pm and 9pm. The Game Pass blackouts harm the hardcore fan willing to part with money on a specifically NFL product only to see the best games ripped from their grasp every week and prioritises the general sports fan with a Sky Sports subscription. NFLUK said last year that Game Pass was being moved front and centre of their product offering but it’s hard to believe that will ever be the case whilst the two best games this Sunday before midnight can’t be shown on it.
We think we’ve got it bad in 2018, let’s not forget when Game Pass launched nine years ago we originally had to wait seven(!) days until we could see any of the games that Sky had decided to show, including playoffs. But today, with the digital and broadcasting world having moved on ten years, a 24 hour blackout window for the best games feels draconian. Especially after the NBA made a TV rights deal with Sky to show their games whilst simultaneously refusing to sacrifice their own OTT product, NBA League Pass, with any blackouts at all.
This year we saw GamePass move to a billing system instead using your IP address to determine your territory and which games you could view live so people could no longer ‘get around’ the blackouts using a VPN service. A recent questionnaire by Game Pass Europe to customers offered multiple questions about the blackouts and how they affected the experience. They even asked if radio or text commentary would be appreciated for these games. I mean, I guess it’s nice to know they’re trying but, no. I don’t want text messaging, I want to see the flipping game. I don’t want to have to part with £250 a year to see them all. The most frustrating part about those suggestions and the developments to prevent people using VPNs is that it doesn’t sound like the blackouts are going away anytime soon.
The black lining to the silver cloud of the team you support doing well in the NFL is that Sky start sniffing around your schedule. It happened to me, in the dearth of a miserable three year stretch, the New York Jets looked like they might make a small amount of noise this year by week 5 (I know it sounds ridiculous now). So wouldn’t you know it, just as I was looking forward to the Vikings trip to the Meadowlands in week 6, bang. Blackout. You’ll have to either stump up for Now TV for a day, Sky Sports for a month, find an illegal stream or pathetically long for the odd highlight being shown on Red Zone. I settled for the latter because even if I pay up I’m getting a degraded experience. I can’t watch the game behind live unless I’m tied to a Sky box and I can’t download the full game on a mobile device when it’s finished.
What exactly is the blackout strategy?
After all these years suffering the blackout policy the question remains, what does the blackout really expect to achieve? Do people really subscribe to Sky Sports as well as Game Pass just because those two games are blacked out? Do people hold off subscribing to Game Pass because they have Sky but would ditch Sky if those two games were available on Game Pass? This seems unlikely.
The thing that makes all this feel utterly illogical is that NFLUK and Sky give away so much of their coverage to access largest possible audience and yet they still retain this blackout. Look at Red Zone. This is the only premium product of any sport available on Sky’s ‘free’ Sports channel available every single week. Over the last two years Red Zone has often attracted more viewers than the live games. Look at the London Games and the Super Bowl which Sky are willing to share with the BBC. Again, attracting the biggest audiences in these instances trump any protection of exclusive rights. Look at the weekly live playoff games on Sky Sports Mix, again they’re willing to break the paywall exclusivity clause to grab bigger audiences. Look at how quick the NFL were to make sure the BBC could show some online highlights of the Rams and Chiefs shootout barely a few hours after it finished.
But the Week 10 game between the Saints and Bengals that got an average audience of 18,000 on Sky Sports? Sorry, that definitely needs blacking out. And for 24 hours. Ridiculous. All the while Red Zone on Sky Sports Mix is pulling in three times the number of viewers and you can also watch Scott Hanson doing his stuff on Game Pass too without any problems.
And what makes some of this even more incongruous is during the heavy bye weeks of the season the 9pm games may only feature two or three matchups on the schedule. Which means you end up being able to see about two thirds of the game you want to watch on Red Zone but not quite the whole thing! It is a complete nonsense.
Which all leads to the following point. Are Sky and NFLUK really under the illusion that Red Zone offers an entry point to the NFL and that viewers will then migrate to the live exclusive games and pay for a Sky Sports subscription? Is this the strategy? Because when looking at the numbers for the live games, bar the odd matchup that has got over 100,000 viewers this year like Packers v Rams, they’re still at the level of 2011 but Red Zone viewership appears to be increasing every year. In fact some weeks like Week 11 it’s highly apparent that the ‘exclusive Sky games’ are haemorrhaging viewers to the ‘free’ Red Zone programming (60% more people watched Red Zone that week than either live game).
People seem to either find the NFL through Red Zone (and often Fantasy football) and stay there or migrate to it from the live games and it’s now their number one way of consuming it every week. And yet it’s the live games are still blacked out? You can’t criticise NFLUK or Sky for the effort they put in to making the live game productions more appealing with appearances from the Around the NFL guys, Peter King, PFF and some of the NFL analysts. But the more you look into the numbers the more it appears that Red Zone is fast becoming THE preferred way most UK viewers watch the NFL Sunday night going forward. And so keeping the Ravens v Chiefs behind a Sky Sports paywall seems utterly futile whatever the strategy is.
2019 and beyond…
In all probability it’s unlikely that anything will change until the current TV deals run out in 2019 (despite the fact things can obviously be adjusted mid contract as the current deal was signed in 2014 and Sky Sports Mix didn’t exist until 2016). Only then can we plead with NFLUK not to offer any exclusivity of games to Sky in the next TV deal.
It’s a figure always kept secret but given the audiences it attracts and looking at the public accounts of NFLUK it’s unlikely Sky are paying more than a few million pounds a year for the rights anyway. The balance will be how much Sky value the programming and filling of it’s schedule with how much NFLUK are reliant on Sky presenting it’s sport week to week to a subscriber base and in a way no other broadcaster would be prepared to do. With the NBA deal proving that there is a way to do a deal with Sky without exclusivity, let’s hope NFLUK follow that example next time.
In the meantime I guess I’ll have to suffer the frustration by watching the Patriots at the Dolphins on Sunday while feeling like I’m missing out on the real party every time CBS cuts to a highlight at Kansas. I guess that’s what I deserve for spending just £139.99 on a specific NFL product…