Why Brands Should Care Less About Blackout Rules, More About Digital Streaming

First NFL worldwide digital distribution set for 2015

Many fans are cheering the end of the NFL's maligned blackout rules, which required a team to sell out its home game at least 72 hours before kickoff for it to be broadcast in the local area. But, according to online video technology company Ooyala's vp of product Jonathan Wilner, brands should be celebrating the fact that the NFL will—for the first time—use a distributor besides television this upcoming 2015 – 2016 season.

"They have the most lucrative TV rights and contracts in the world," Wilner said. "For them to say, 'We're going to put a game online. We don't even care how this might impact our DirecTV Sunday Ticket deal,' that's interesting."

On Monday, the NFL announced it would stream the Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars game on Oct. 25 from Wembley Stadium in London worldwide. While networks have streamed games, including the Super Bowl, the NFL hasn't made games available live on a digital platform. Wilner—who previously was the chief technology officer of FOXsports.com—said with the NFL testing out video content on Facebook through its partnership with Verizon, it shows the league is getting more comfortable with the the digital medium. Wilner pointed out that this could bring in a whole new class of potential buyers and distributors, especially internationally. For example, the Buffalo Bills vs. Jacksonville Jaguars game happens to air at primetime in China, which could open up opportunities for the NFL in that market.

Wilner pointed out the NFL blackout policy hasn't affected that many games over the past decade. While his family used to have to point the antenna toward Flint, Mich. to get the blacked-out Detroit Lions games during the 1970s, the NFL hasn't had problems selling out games as of late. In the 1970s, 50 percent of the games were not broadcast due to the rule; only 5 percent of games were blacked out during the 2010s. Last year, no games were blacked out due to the regulation.

However, Baker Street Advertising executive creative director Bob Dorfman said the blackout ban may help assuage the fears of local advertisers who may have been concerned their ad would never air.

"It makes the NFL games a sure thing, a guaranteed buy, and a guaranteed media opportunity," he said.

But, the move to test out digital waters shows the NFL's confidence that they have large enough interest in an Internet-only audience, Dorfman said. With the younger audience more comfortable viewing sports on digital formats, it's a way to reach this demographic. It also presents new advertising opportunities on digital and mobile platforms. 

"This is going to be the beginning of a process," Dorfman said. "It's going to be interesting to see if they continue to do this, take more games to streaming media to possibly pulling games and making it an exclusive on digital. This may be pitting cable broadcasters against digital platforms."