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By Dylan Byers
There’s a new proxy fight in Hollywood’s streaming wars — the NFL.
As America’s tech, media and telecom giants launch new streaming services, the rights for one of the National Football League’s most coveted packages may soon be on the auction block.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is courting partners including Amazon and Disney for streaming rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, which gives viewers access to the full slate of NFL games not already being broadcast in their market, according to sources familiar with the league’s discussions.
In a contentious war for subscribers, the Ticket could be the X-factor for any one of the major media companies vying for pre-eminence.
No one is more keenly aware of the Ticket’s power than AT&T, which has had exclusive rights to the service for 25 years. AT&T sells the package through its DirecTV service, and the fact that Goodell may break that exclusive partnership is straining their long-standing relationship, the sources said.
The NFL has the option to end its exclusive deal with AT&T at the end of the 2019 season, and all signs suggest that option is on the table.
The NFL and AT&T did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“We’re having great discussions with DirecTV and AT&T,” Goodell said in an interview with Bloomberg last month. “We’ve had a 25-year partnership, and we want to continue that partnership. But we also are looking to see how we can change the delivery.”
In order to “change the delivery,” the NFL is talking to Disney and Amazon about selling them the rights to stream the Ticket, according to sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
Both parties are interested in what the NFL service could do to expand the audience for their respective streaming services. Amazon already has streaming rights for Thursday Night Football, and Disney is looking to bolster ESPN+, which is one of three subscription services it will soon offer (along with Disney+ and Hulu).
“What could Disney add to their arsenal to be distinct in the market?” one source asked. “Every out-of-market NFL game. At that point, buy Hulu, ESPN+ and Disney+, and who needs cable?”
The NFL has eyed other buyers as well, albeit with less success.
“Google has been on and off,” the source said, adding that the NFL has always wanted Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to be interested, “and he never was.”
Google and Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Disney declined to comment.
The fact that these conversations are even happening is not playing well with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, sources said, as evidenced by the recent fight over the NFL Network.
AT&T announced this week that it was dropping the NFL Network from DirecTV Now and U-verse, apparently without making any effort to negotiate.
“We never heard a word from them,” an NFL Network spokesperson said.
Stephenson may renew the deal before September, but could take the opportunity to needle Goodell.
“The NFL does not like being blacked out,” one source said. “It’s wildly embarrassing to them that partners can do this.”
Meanwhile, the NFL is working with AT&T’s competitor Verizon to create 5G services like games and augmented reality experiences for fans.
That doesn’t mean AT&T is out of the conversation. The Dallas-based telecom giant recently bought Time Warner (now WarnerMedia) and is launching its own streaming service. There’s a scenario where AT&T retains rights to broadcast the Ticket on DirecTV while also offering it to digital subscribers through its new media property.
At the end of the day, one of the sources said, the NFL will probably go with “whoever writes the biggest check.”