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Why the Internet Could -- But Probably Won't -- Land a Mega-Deal With the NFL

The last big prize in TV sports is up for grabs. Could Apple, Google or someone else make a run for it?

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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.

TV may be in decline, but it’s still huge. And the biggest thing on TV is the NFL.

Which is why the upcoming auction for the NFL’s slate of Thursday night games is going be fierce. Most of the big broadcast networks, and at least one cable network, want in, and the price tag for the 16 game series — currently shared by CBS and the league’s own NFL Network — could be in the $600 million-a-year range.

TV’s shrinkage problem actually increases the NFL’s value to the TV guys. There’s no reason to watch TV when you can watch whatever you want, whenever and wherever you want — unless you want to watch the NFL. That’s only on TV. And every other NFL contract is locked up until 2022.

So what if you were a big, cash-rich technology company that wanted to upend the TV business? Wouldn’t those same NFL games be attractive to you?

Yep! Which is why some big, cash-rich technology companies may be considering making their own bids for the games.

Apple, for instance, has been circling the TV business for many years, and still hasn’t figured out a way to deliver a TV subscription product of its own. Apple had hoped to launch a TV service last fall, along with its new Apple TV box, but that’s in limbo now.

CEO Tim Cook was willing to spend $3 billion to buy a headphone company with a music app. What would he pay for can’t-watch-anywhere-else TV?

If this sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for that. A couple of years ago, when the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package was up for renewal, the NFL talked to potential tech suitors including Google. That deal ultimately ended up renewing with DirecTV. And if you were betting, you would bet that the Thursday package stays with traditional TV networks. Folks I talk to think this one is still CBS’s to lose.

And while the notion of a tech company wading right into the heart of the TV Industrial Complex and walking away with its crown jewel is really entertaining — I’ve loved this idea for a while — I don’t think we’re ready for it quite yet.

And by “we” I mean both consumers and the tech infrastructure we’d need to stream live sports on our TVs.

Yes, you can do it right now. But it’s not great: When I stream live sports on the Web I find that the games look great on my phone, OK on a tablet, and by the time they get to my actual TV, it doesn’t really look like TV — it looks like something streaming over the Web. Even at its best — which it often isn’t — the picture looks a little laggy compared to a coaxial cable connection.

And I know what I’m doing, more or less. Imagine what would happen if many millions of people had no choice but to use the Internet to get the Packers and the Bears on their LCDs.

Or don’t imagine: Try it yourself during tonight’s game, after your turkey, using the “NBC Sports Live Extra” app and your Apple TV or Roku box. If you’re visiting family for the holidays, this is an even better experiment: Ask one of your relatives, who doesn’t spend time thinking about this stuff, to see if they can make it work.

That prospect alone is probably enough to convince NFL owners — who value a mass audience above everything else — that they’re not ready to give digital a full bear-hug quite yet.

But there are additional complications to making a Thursday night slate all-digital, too: The mobile rights for those games, for instance, are already claimed by Verizon, and the notion of buying the rights to stream games but not being able to stream to an iPhone can’t be exciting for Apple.

So the more probable outcome is that the NFL replicates the experiment it ran with Yahoo last month, when it streamed a London-based game. The NFL seems pretty pleased with the way that went, but it was a deliberately low-stakes proposition. (Important sidenote: The game also allowed NFL to sidestep its Verizon issue, since the telco didn’t buy the rights to the international games in 2013, when it did its last deal.)

The next step would be to make a larger bet on streaming, with more regular season games out of Europe; the NFL just announced that it will do 3 more from London next year, and perhaps a fourth game from somewhere else. Making some or all of those games digital-only is less exciting than a toe-to-toe brawl between Silicon Valley and Big TV. But it’s a lot more plausible.

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