Does Facebook Want Live NFL Game Rights?

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Does Facebook want live game rights to NFL and other sports? The answer might surprise you.
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Does Facebook want live game rights to the NFL and other sports?

That’s the billion-dollar question keeping broadcast TV executives up at night, and executives at leagues and teams salivating, as a whole host of media rights for the NFL and other sports leagues will be available soon.

With a market capitalization of $501.58 billion, and 2.41 billion active monthly users around the globe, Facebook has the potential to completely shake up the sports TV landscape.

League executives have suggested as much. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he fully expects Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Amazon and Google to be part of the next round of negotiations for the league’s broadcast deals that are expiring in 2021-2022.

But if you talk to Rob Shaw, Facebook’s head of global sports media and league partnerships, the social media powerhouse is more interested in cooperating with sports TV networks than supplanting them.

On his Twitter feed, Shaw has previously called Facebook the sports world’s real second screen. It’s “premature” to say Facebook will be a bidder for the live game rights currently held by ESPN, NBC, Fox, and CBS. But Shaw is carefully not ruling it out either.

“If it makes sense for us to have that content type on our platform, where it’s good for the fans, it’s good for Facebook as a business and it’s good for our league partners, we’ll cross that bridge. We’re just not there yet,” said Shaw. “It’s just too early. We’ve had Facebook Watch for what, two years at most? It’s just very early days for us to start thinking about that type of content.”

Facebook’s incremental sports strategy is hiding in plain sight. Facebook has made multiple moves in recent years to add more sports content and live games.

The social network and NFL recently announced a two-year extension of a content-sharing deal that began in 2017. Facebook Watch gets highlights of all 256 regular-season games. Plus, archival footage, video clips of NFL media analysts and podcasts.

That’s just highlights. But Facebook is also beginning to stream the most valuable content in entertainment – live games – in the U.S. and abroad.

For the second season in a row, Facebook is working with Conference USA, CBS, and Stadium. While CBS remains the primary rights holder, Facebook gets to stream multiple college football and basketball games. The coverage is produced by CBS/Stadium for Facebook

Facebook is also streaming Major League Baseball games for a third straight season. Those games are produced by MLB Network.

The tech giant previously forged a deal with Fox to stream UEFA Champions League matches in the U.S. during the 2017-2018 season. Then last year, it acquired media rights for the UEFA in Latin America through 2021.

The World Surf League, meanwhile, has a digital deal with Facebook to stream surf competitions globally. ESPN and Facebook just announced a deal to bring exclusive versions of Countdown to GameDay and Fantasy Focus Live to Facebook Watch. 

Tech analyst Daniel Ives of GBH Insights said last year that Facebook’s only in the “first inning” of its sports expansion. He predicted Facebook would spend over $1 billion on original content programming over a 12-month period – with most of it going to live sports rights.

The first NFL shoe to drop will be ESPN’s $1.9 billion a year deal for Monday Night Football, which expires after the 2021 season. The real bonanza comes after the 2022 season when contracts for NBC’s Sunday Night Football and CBS and Fox’s Sunday afternoon packages expire.

So what does Shaw say to worried network TV executives? Rather than looking at Facebook as a competitor, they should think of it as a potential partner, he said. It can be a win-win for both sides.

Sports leagues gain a more interactive relationship with a younger, global audience. More than 700 million people connect to at least one sports page on Facebook. Meanwhile, the social media giant can use sports video to attract new users, drive engagement and build ad sales.

“Look, I would like nothing more than for them to think about Facebook as a platform to distribute the content. I think the type of partnership we have with CBS around Conference USA is extremely unique – but hopefully not unique much longer,” said Shaw.

“I love the notion of broadcasters thinking about incorporating Facebook in their distribution strategy. So far with a lot of the content that we’ve seen, there’s very much a differentiated audience that’s consuming the content on Facebook vs. the linear channels.”

READ MORE: More ESPN Content Coming To Facebook Watch

Many people might end up surprised by the upcoming NFL TV negotiations, said Patrick Crakes, the former Fox Sports executive turned media consultant.

Instead of burying incumbent TV partners with multi-billion dollar bids, Facebook and other digital giants are just as likely to partner with networks that boast the production expertise they lack.

Take Facebook’s MLB and Conference USA deals. In both instances, Facebook preferred to be a distribution pipeline while leaving production up to its network TV partners. The answer to whether Facebook wants live game rights might be simple. Yes. As long as they have partners.

“I think they’ve settled on a strategy: Let’s be incremental. Let’s be part of the system,” said Crakes.

READ MORE: Surf’s Up – And So Are World Surf League’s TV And Digital Media Rights

Despite all the breathless predictions, the tech giants haven’t spent much as far as sports content, Crakes noted. They have no expertise producing live games.

Facebook’s “got all this money and people watch video there. Therefore, of course, they’re going to get the NFL, right? Wrong,” said Crakes. “What are the business goals? What’s the strategy? How are they allocating capital? What drives value? That’s really how (Facebook) thinks. And that’s why a lot of these ideas about where these rights are going are half-baked.”