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Yahoo Will Stream the NFL's First Web Game, for Free

The Buffalo-Jacksonville game will be available around the world. But you'll need to set your clocks early if you want to watch in the U.S.

Olga Bogatyrenko /
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.

A couple of months ago, when the NFL announced that for the first time ever, it would show a regular season game (almost) exclusively on the Internet, it didn’t know who would handle the streaming or how much it would cost fans to watch the game.

Now it does: Yahoo will host the livestream of the Oct. 25 Jacksonville Jaguars-Buffalo Bills game, and it’ll be free to viewers around the world.

The move is at least symbolically significant for the NFL, which wants to start experimenting with digital distribution. Likewise for Yahoo, which has become very interested in Web video under CEO Marissa Mayer but has yet to generate much buzz for its efforts.

Industry executives familiar with the NFL’s negotiations think Yahoo paid at least $20 million for the rights to stream the game; in return it has exclusive ad rights for the game. The league bid out the streaming rights and at least one other tech company made a very competitive offer, sources say.

It will be interesting to see how much those ads can generate for Yahoo: On the one hand, the novelty of the Web stream will generate lots of attention from media types. On the other hand, the game will take place in London on a Sunday afternoon, which means it will air at 9:30 in the morning on the East Coast and 6:30 am on the West Coast. And since it features two small/tiny-market teams, its aggregate U.S. audience may be miniscule.

But! If you had a third hand, you could also factor in the appeal of a free NFL game for curious audiences in Europe, where it will air in the afternoon.

Other unknowns for the game (which will also air on conventional broadcast and cable TV in Buffalo and Jacksonville) include the streaming quality, and the overall experience for digital viewers, who are supposed to be able to watch the game on a variety of devices: Phones, PCs, and TVs with built-in Internet connections or those connected to devices like Apple TVs, Google Chromecasts and Xbox 360s.

Brian Rolapp, who heads up the NFL’s media business, says the game will be produced by CBS, at the same quality level the network uses for its traditional broadcasts. But high-profile Web streaming events have a history of misfires, and he’s not making any guarantees for this one.

“Our hope is that it will be a very high-quality experience,” he says. “But this is one of the reasons we’re doing it — to figure out how close are we to high quality streams of our most valuable property.”

Even if the game streams without incident, that doesn’t mean we’re going to see many more of these in the future. That’s primarily because the rights to most NFL games are locked up with TV networks until 2022 at the earliest. The one exception: A slate of Thursday night games, which CBS will broadcast this fall and which could become available after that.

It’s possible that the NFL could sell those games to Yahoo or another digital outlet for 2016. Or, just as likely — it could convince a broadcaster that a digital buyer is a real possibility, which would increase competition and the price for those games. Football wins either way.

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