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Touchdown for digital: Why the NFL’s online strategy makes for a winning game plan

nfl online game rewind sports footballThe National Football League kicked off its 2012-2013 season last week. As the United States’ most popular sport, this signals the return of football’s “total domination” of both television and your company’s water cooler.

The NFL hopes to dominate online, as well. Two significant assets will help with this effort: a good streaming plan and a forward-thinking digital strategist.

Good (though not perfect) digital distribution

Though no sport’s online plan is perfect, the NFL has the best of America’s four major sports.

For $39.99, NFL Game Rewind provides full, high-definition replays of every 2012 Regular Season game. While Game Rewind is flawed for not airing live game action, it makes up for it in other ways. For instance, the NFL even provides replays of its entire schedule of games with no blackout restrictions, which is very progressive when viewed in context of plans for other sports. As I wrote in April:

  • Though the NBA offers a for-pay online streaming plan in its League Pass service, blackout rules will prevent many viewers from watching games in which they will be most interested — those for their local teams and those nationally televised.
  • Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV is more expensive than any other league’s streaming plan and has even more blackout problems than NBA League Pass.
  • The NHL’s Gamecenter LIVE provides access to only out-of-market games and does not carry the Stanley Cup Playoffs. GameCenter Premium, the NHL’s playoff product, offers only radio broadcasts.
  • Don’t worry though, hockey fans. There likely will not be a season this year anyway, so you won’t have an opportunity to complain about that ridiculous “premium” plan.

The NFL’s plan really shines when it comes to additional features. Game Rewind provides access to not just this season’s games, but also to those from the last three seasons, plus 20 of the best Super Bowls ever broadcast. Game Pass has great features to enhance the viewing experience, too. You can watch up to four games simultaneously with the player, and use their “Big Play Markers” to instantly jump to the most important events in each game. The player also has “Condensed” streams, which cover all of the game’s pertinent action in about a half hour. New to the player this year is a Coaches Film view, which provides additional All-22 and EndZone viewing angles previously unavailable to the public.

nfl game pass football season streaming online sportsThe NFL’s contracts with its television partners are also very digital-friendly. The League’s best products — its playoffs and NBC’s phenomenal Sunday Night Football telecast — are streamed online for free. Further, more games will become available online over the course of the 2014-2022 NFL television contracts, which extend streaming rights to all networks.

It may not be perfect, but, for today, the NFL has the best online streaming plan of US major sports.

A smart, seasoned digital boss

Jeff Berman, NFL General Manage of Digital Media, is in charge of making sure things stay that way. In August, Berman provided some insight into the NFL’s high-level digital strategy in an interview with Bloomberg.

What we focus on, and this is very much the mandate from the commissioner, is creating world-class, extraordinary fan experiences. Obviously, revenue follows from that, and we have a healthy model that mixes ad revenue and transactional revenue. But, by creating world-class experiences for our fans, we know that we’re just creating more value overall for the NFL, and that’s an unequivocally good thing.

Berman hasn’t limited the NFL’s search for “world-class experiences” to the usual suspects like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. For instance, Bloomberg interviewed him when the NFL had just partnered with Google to bring Google+ Hangout video conferences to NFL.com fantasy football.

The NFL’s partnership with Google is a brilliant idea. Video conferencing will return face-to-face interaction to fantasy football drafts that often occur between participants separated by hundreds of miles. Including this feature differentiates the NFL’s fantasy football platform against competition from Yahoo!, ESPN, and a host of other companies. That Berman is apparently on a first-name basis with “Mark and Cheryl” at Facebook makes him strike all the more convincing a figure — though I do disagree with his assertion that Fantasy Football is “in many respects … the first social network.” I was also disappointed when he deflected a question about the NFL’s proportion of viewership from tablet and mobile devices.

google plus hangout nfl sports football2011 Mashable interview with Berman, when he discussed experimentation with Google+, Tumblr, and Pinterest provides further evidence of the NFL Digital Chief’s savviness. However, the best support for Berman’s credibility may be his history with MySpace.

Though once a candidate to be MySpace’s CEO, Berman departed the company in August 2009. He could hardly have chosen a better time to leave. Berman was at MySpace for much of the social network’s rise to, by some estimates, 114 million global visitors, but hardly any of its precipitous decline. It may have simply been good luck, but I theorize that Berman saw the writing on the wall at MySpace and got out while the getting was good.

Conclusion

NFL Game Rewind and the League’s 2014 TV contracts will ensure that the core experience of watching football online will only increase in quality. Jeff Berman will work to keep football’s peripheral experiences — like fantasy leagues and social media interactions — at the cutting edge.

As a football fan, I look forward to what Berman and his team can offer in the future.