Game On: Checking Out The Digital NFL

November was a month of many disputes within the entertainment industry: Broadway stagehands went on strike (they have since returned); screenwriters picketed in Los Angeles against the studios; and the now-yearlong plus disagreement between the NFL Network and cable operators refusing to carry the channel continues. While each of the two latter situations does have a direct impact on digital, I wanted instead to focus specifically on the NFL and what its new cable channel means for online video.

For all you football fans, especially those living outside the state of Wisconsin or Texas, Thursday night means scrambling to find a suitable place to watch the big game. The NFL Network, in its second year of broadcasting, began airing games just two weeks ago for the 2007 season. However, because many cable operators refuse to pay the estimated 70 cents per subscriber monthly fee the NFL is charging, an estimated 43 million households have access to the channel, compared to more than 94 million homes for ESPN.



This past Thursday I visited to check out the digital offering, knowing there would be plenty of other fans also tuning in for the game since they were blocked from the cable broadcast. The league offered a fair amount of live coverage, in between commentary from the typical studio personalities. I do not have the channel in my home, but I am guessing the studio panel was the same panel used for pre- and post-game, as well as for halftime. This group continued to add live commentary over to the actual live game broadcast, which would be displayed for about 5-10 minutes of coverage at a time. On commercial breaks the studio team was called upon again, so Web site visitors were not required to watch any commercials. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the broadcast and actual picture image, although certain frames displayed a slow load time on several occasions. The video player was displayed on page rather than in its own separate browser, and the size of the player was about 35-40% of the screen, helping to provide a clear yet sizeable image. The rest of the browser offered tabs for interaction by fans. There was an area called "Live Blog" where fans could ask questions and submit comments by name and hometown. Real-time stats and live sideline commentary from Deion Sanders and others were provided in another tab.

On the advertising side, there were only two prominent game sponsors that I identified. The first was Sprint, which had dual logo placement on the top and bottom of the page, while Wendy's was the official sponsor of the "Fan Challenge" which provided an opportunity for entrants to win tickets to SuperBowl XLII. Fans were able to watch much of the coverage without advertiser interruption or participation, something that will undoubtedly change in the future.

The digital distribution of games is an incredibly exciting development. Not only will it provide a potential alternative distribution outlet for the leagues, but it can also be an outstanding secondary source of revenue. Don't get me wrong, I do not think digital video replaces the billion-dollar broadcast infrastructure that exists today. The scale is still very minimal, as few fans have the mindset to turn on their PC or laptop to view a sporting event, let alone any live event. There are also challenges in creating a revenue opportunity as compelling as the one on television. Ultimately digital broadcast does not kill the Sunday ritual of heading to the local pub to watch a game, or the Super Bowl party. However, to the diehard fan who wants to have a mission control center to monitor the NFL day, including all his fantasy statistics, digital video and the supporting content will become incredibly compelling.

The dispute between the NFL and cable has no end in sight, and the Federal Communications Commission is now being asked to weigh in on the matter, which is never a good thing. However, the one positive development out of this entire disagreement is that online video is being seen as an alternative by the league and many of its fans. As an occasional follower of the games, I like that I was able to watch my normal television programming at night while having the game right next to me on my laptop, almost like a picture in picture scenario.

The next scheduled game is this Thursday, Dec. 6th, Bears vs. Redskins at 8 p.m. If you have to access to your computer then, I encourage you to visit to see for yourself what the digital broadcast looks like.

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