Verizon Wireless grabbed attention last year when it reached a deal with the NFL to carry live games and the league's hugely popular RedZone channel for a reported $720 million over four years.
Compared to the billions that TV networks typically pay the NFL for broadcast rights, that might seem like small change. But in the emerging mobile media world, where return on such investments is hardly certain, it ranked as a Super Bowl-size deal.
As the second season for Verizon's NFL Mobile app gets underway, both sides say the partnership has gotten off to a strong start, with the app drawing 4.5 million downloads and a mostly positive response from fans. But Verizon isn't cashing in just yet -- with most NFL mobile users so far getting the free version of the app, and third-party advertising still minimal.
For now, the nation's largest wireless carrier is mainly focused on not fumbling the opportunity.
Mitch Dornich, director of mobile entertainment at Verizon, said uptake and usage of NFL Mobile have exceeded expectations and that downloads continue to grow quickly. "So the good news is that the take rate for new users has not slowed at all," he said.
The free version of NFL Mobile includes features such as live audio broadcasts of all games, news and information from the league, video highlights and a fantasy football tracker. For an extra $10 a month (on top of a monthly data plan), users on Verizon's 3G network can get access to RedZone, the NFL network and live games on Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights.
For subscribers on Verizon's newer LTE 4G network, the premium version of NFL Mobile is included in their data plan. That's to reward the early adopters of the high-speed service Verizon is still rolling out around the country, according to Dornich. Neither Verizon or the NFL would say what proportion of users so far paying the additional $10 for the full video version of the app.
But as with most offerings based on a "freemium" model, the vast majority of users are free and only a minority are paid. "Exclusive [mobile] content usually drives the most enthused fans," noted Bill Ho, research director for wireless services at technology research firm Current Analysis.
But Verizon maintains the app is crossing over to more casual fans as well. Enhancements have been added this season to entice free and premium subscribers, including a more streamlined layout overall, in-game video highlights in the app's Gamecenter section, and expanded VOD.
On the pay side, the main sweetener was the addition of Monday night football. Users seemed satisfied with the product. In Apple's App Store, NFL Mobile has received a respectable three out of five stars (915 ratings) and 4.2 out of five stars in the Android Market (45,000 ratings).
Based on comments posted to the rival app stores, however, the extra $10 a month that 3G users have to pay for live games and RedZone rankles. So does the fact that the service is only available from Verizon -- a particular annoyance for AT&T iPhone customers.
That highlights a big difference between a TV network getting an exclusive NFL package and a wireless carrier. For fans, changing the channel is a lot easier than changing carriers. Verizon's addition of the iPhone earlier this year, however, opens up the service to potentially millions more consumers. NFL Mobile is now available on 35 different smartphone models, with Motorola's Droid Bionic among the latest additions.
Optimizing the service for multiple devices, smartphone platforms and its 3G and 4G networks "has been one of the biggest projects we've had in terms of mobile video," noted Dornich. The app is also Wi-Fi compatible. Plus, NFL Mobile is likely headed to tablet screens at some point.
"There are a lot of reasons that makes sense," said Hans Schroeder, the NFL's senior vice president of media and strategy development. He said the league had recently introduced a tablet-optimized version of the NFL.com site and views mobile overall as complementary to its operations across TV, Internet and radio.
The NFL and Verizon struck their deal last year just before the April 2010 launch of the iPad, which almost singlehandedly created the tablet market. The agreement only covers mobile phones, not tablets. So rights issues, as well as technical ones, would have to be worked out before extending the service to tablets.
The two companies are not rushing into bringing advertising to NFL Mobile, either, for fear of alienating users. "We're very sensitive to quality of product were delivering, so what I don't want is something polluted, if you will, with all kinds of advertising and banner ads and things like that," said Dornich.
So far, he said the NFL and Verizon are just starting to "dabble" in advertising, mainly through sponsorships in areas like message boards in Gamecenter.
Schroeder explained that the league wants to be able to offer ad buys across all screens, but do so in a manner appropriate to each type of media. "We're walking before we run with the ad model to make sure it's comfortable both for consumers and advertisers," he said.
Current Analysis' Ho suggested the key for Verizon isn't necessarily ad revenue but using the NFL relationship to boost its core wireless subscriber business. Whether the deal will ultimately pay off in that regard is difficult to judge.
"This type of relationships/co-branding is certainly marketing-worthy but the return on investment for both parties is solely within their internal metrics," said Current Analysis' Ho. "Only Verizon Wireless knows whether they acquire new customers from this or retain and make the service stickier to existing subscribers."
If NFL Mobile doesn't do the trick, Verizon has also begun rolling out free apps for individual teams including the Jets, Giants, Ravens, Texans and Bills, with more to come. In addition to creating apps tailored to specific fan bases, the idea was also to keep from overstuffing the main NFL app. "That's what the focus was -- trying to simplify that user experience," said Dornich.