Subscription-free streaming for NFL games

In this Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, photo apps for NFL and Yahoo Sports are displayed on a phone on the sidelines before a preseason NFL football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Jets in Philadelphia. As the regular season starts Thursday, Sept. 6, the league is finally dropping a requirement that viewers sign in with a cable or satellite subscription, as it seeks to expand its online audience at a time when TV ratings are declining. The subscription-free games will be available on the NFL app and the Verizon-owned Yahoo Sports, Tumblr and AOL apps. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

the associated press

NEW YORK — The good news for football fans: It’s going to be much easier to watch NFL games online this year.

The league is finally dropping a requirement that viewers sign in with a cable or satellite subscription, in hopes of expanding its online audience at a time when TV ratings are declining . Though there are restrictions — no free streaming on smart TVs, for instance — the move marks a significant departure for sports. Other major professional leagues still require TV subscriptions for hometown teams.

The NFL regular season starts Thursday.

“We think people will still want to watch on the biggest screen possible,” said Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief business and media officer.

But as more people drop cable or satellite subscriptions — or never sign up in the first place — the NFL needs to be flexible in order to reach them, Rolapp said. Even those who can watch on TV are preferring phones, he said.

“If you don’t get to that younger demographic, who aren’t conditioned to go to the television, you do run the risk of losing them,” he said.

The NFL has been inching toward subscription-free games in recent years. It made a deal with Twitter, then Amazon, to stream a handful of games online . This year, Amazon will offer 11 Thursday night games for free on its Twitch app or on its Prime Video app with a $119-a-year Prime subscription.

Last season, Verizon customers got subscription-free access on phones to whatever CBS or Fox was broadcasting regionally on Sunday afternoons, plus all the nationally televised games on NBC, ESPN and NFL Network. Now, any wireless customer can get them on both phones and tablets. The one restriction: Seven games that are exclusive to the NFL Network channel can be viewed only on phones, not tablets.

Online football streaming, estimated by NFL officials at 2 percent to 3 percent of overall viewership, isn’t enough yet to offset declines in television viewership. But the NFL believes every viewer counts. A key element in getting the television networks on board: The networks get to sell the majority of ads appearing on those subscription-free streams. Distributors such as Verizon get the rest.