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The NFL Will Stream a Game on the Web Next Year. Don't Get Used to It.

Even if the NFL wants to move from TV to the Web, it can't do it anytime soon.

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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.

The NFL, which has been flirting with Web video for a while, is taking it to the next step: Next fall, pro football will stream a regular season game to viewers around the country. And unless they live in Jacksonville or Buffalo, fans will have to stream it — there won’t be a broadcaster or cable network carrying the game.

This is a big deal, because up until this year, big-time live sports were one of the few things you couldn’t see on Web TV. Now that’s changing: Earlier this year, for instance, Dish Network started selling Sling TV, which gives Web streamers access to ESPN and its portfolio of high-profile sports leagues and games.

So it’s tempting to assume that the NFL will end up following suit and ditch TV for the Web. But I wouldn’t count on it: Instead, the NFL may be trying to use the Web to get more money out of TV. We’ve seen this movie before.

NFL executives made the decision at the league’s owners meetings today. But the league has been headed here for some time. Two years ago, the NFL talked about selling its “Sunday Ticket” package of games to Google’s YouTube, or other digital players, but ended up reselling the rights to DirecTV instead. Last year, NFL media boss Brian Rolapp said streaming games online was a matter of “when, not if.”

In this case, the NFL hasn’t even figured out who it will sell the game rights to, which is one big flag that this is more of a trial than a strategy. Another is that the game will be about as low-stakes as a regular season NFL game can get: Jaguars vs. Bills — two teams with relatively small national fan bases — live from London, which means that it will air at 9:30 am in New York, and before breakfast time in much of the country. (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the game would air on a Thursday; it will air on a Sunday.)

One more clue that it’s a test — that’s what the NFL is calling it. “This is just us taking a game and experimenting with what IP distribution might look like,” said Rolapp.

And there are lots of experiments to run here. Can the Internet really deliver a live NFL game, at the same level of quality people are used to getting from their pay TV provider, to lots of people at the same time? Big streaming events are no longer a new idea, but they’re almost always done in conjunction with TV broadcasts, not as the only option.

And while big streaming events are nothing new, complaints about them are now old hat as well. Often this is because of a problem on the side of the company that’s producing the event — ABC, for instance, accidentally streamed old movies and TV shows instead of Oscar footage during last month’s Academy Awards.

But there are plenty of other places for a livestream to go wrong, including the Wi-Fi connections and other hardware-related issues at viewers’ homes. Is the NFL and its partner-to-be up to handling the complaints from someone who can’t figure out how to plug in their Chromecast or lost the remote for their Apple TV?

And finally, can the NFL make sure that enough of its fans even have access to the game? You don’t need special equipment to watch a live game on your laptop, but you do need decent broadband. And if you want to get it onto your TV, you’ll need a set with a built-in Internet connection, or equipment that brings the Internet to your TV.

“Television is still the best way that we deliver all of this stuff, and one reason is that television has a huge reach,” Rolapp said. “We want to mimic that reach.”

For argument’s sake, let’s say the Jags-Bills game goes off well, and the NFL can credibly argue that lots of people want to watch more games this way. That still doesn’t mean that will happen, because almost all of the league’s games are locked up with TV networks through 2022.

So if the NFL really wants to stream more games, it has two options: It can sell streaming rights to the handful of games it broadcasts via its NFL Network on Thursdays, which is what it’s doing for next fall’s game. Or it can take the other eight Thursday games, which CBS will broadcast next fall, and offer them up to YouTube, Facebook and other likely suspects when that deal expires at the end of 2015.

But my hunch is that the NFL’s real intent here isn’t to take the games away from TV, at least in the short-term. Instead, I think it would like to have more credible buyers for those games, so that CBS or any other TV network that buys them has a reason to bid up the prices. CBS is already paying around $300 million for this year’s games.

Rolapp won’t engage me in this kind of war-gaming. “We’re really not thinking beyond this one game,” he said, just like any good coach would say. But any good coach wants as many options as he or she can get. Now the NFL has another one.

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