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Yahoo's Streaming NFL Game Is a Low-Stakes First

Jags! Bills! Live! The future is now, but it's also several years away.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

On Sunday the Buffalo Bills play the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, in a game that will start at 9:30 am ET. Yahoo will stream the game, for free, worldwide, which makes it the first time an NFL game has been primarily a digital-only event.

What’s that? You don’t care?

You’re in good company. While Yahoo is paying real money for the rights to stream the game — around $20 million — this is very much a low-stakes event. And that’s by design.

Start with the NFL’s side of the equation: While the future of the NFL may be digital, one day, it won’t be for some time. So this is a way for the NFL to play around with digital, without taking on any real risk.

In the worst-case scenario, where there are major problems with the stream, there won’t be many people complaining. Jacksonville and Buffalo fans will be able to watch the game on good old-fashioned broadcast TV in their home markets, while the rest of the fan base — well, these aren’t teams with big fan bases, and that’s not a coincidence.

Nor is the fact that fans in, say, Los Angeles would have to be up at 6:30 on a Sunday morning to watch this thing.

And for Yahoo, there’s a very good chance this game won’t be anything more than a footnote in its on-again, off-again approach to the media business.

No one at the company ever intended to turn a profit from the game. It was supposed to be a branding event that burnished the company’s image with advertisers and media buyers.

That may not be the case. A Sports Business Journal report contested Yahoo’s claim that the game’s ad slots were sold out. The SBJ says Yahoo had to lower its initial asking price from $200,000 to $50,000 for a 30-second spot, but that you could still get airtime this week if you wanted.

But I’ll still watch on Sunday.

If it’s a trainwreck, that’s a story. More likely is that it works okay-ish: My hunch, based on sports livestreaming I’ve done in the past, is that the game will look good on my iPhone, okay on my iPad and not great on my Apple TV* — or, at least, not as good as watching the game on good old-fashioned TV would look.

So the question is: Will it be good enough for someone else to want to pull this off again? And if so, when?

Most of the NFL’s games are locked up with traditional TV networks through 2022. But the league could theoretically auction off a bunch of Thursday night games as soon as next year: CBS is showing those games this year, but the NFL is marketing them now to the usual suspects, and it’s always happy to have digital players as bidders, if not buyers.

More likely is that the NFL sells off its Thursday games to a traditional TV network and offers a few more low-stakes London games to digital outlets for the next couple of years. If Apple or Google or someone else with deep pockets and big ambitions wants to stream NFL games, they’ll probably end up waiting a few more years before it’s a reality.

* Yahoo’s directions for streaming the game, by the way, include tips on how to do it on the new Apple TV, which won’t be available to the general public until next week.

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that former Yahoo media head Kathy Savitt pushed to get the deal done. Sources familiar with the company say she did not.

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