Last night’s NFL game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns was the first game of the 2015 NFL season that moved Thursday night coverage from CBS to the NFL Network. The transition marks the halfway point of the season, and moving forward, Thursday Night Football requires a premium television subscription in order to access the game’s broadcast. This is a major improvement over pre-2014 Thursday Night Football, when beginning in week two, all TNF games were only watchable through these subscriptions.
Throughout the first half of the season while the games are broadcast nationally on CBS, the Thursday night games see a relatively small number of illegal streams. The numbers we tracked through search engine statistics reveal that most of the traffic is international or people in areas that aren’t reached easily through traditional antenna broadcast.
However, as we suspected, during last night’s game, there was a massive domestic spike in people searching for ways to stream Thursday Night Football online for free. You can see from the trend graph below that there was a large spike in the number of people searching. We’re confident this is directly reflective of the switch from CBS to the NFL Network.
The good news for these people searching for illegal streams of the game is that the total number of sites offering these streams illegally also increased, at least if users were willing to conduct a little ballet with the troubles that come from these sites. From our estimations, once again monitoring the flow of web traffic, there was an approximate 35% week-over-week increase in what we would define as “easily accessible” streams of the game online. Put more specifically, outside of all the broken promises of sites that swear they’ll offer visitors the chance to watch the game if they just update that one plugin (read: install malware), there were actually a record number of sites that made it extremely easy to watch. This is the NFL’s worst nightmare. Cut off the head of one illegal stream and it spawns 10 more.
There’s a big reason for this spike in illegal streams, and in our research we discovered through a 2014 Digital Citizens Alliance report that over $220 million dollars annually is made off of the illegal use of content on the web, including illegal streams of live sports. It’s apparently very lucrative to host illegal streams, cram them with as many advertisements as possible, and let the traffic flow. The below screenshot being a common occurrence for those on the routine hunt to watch sports online:
The NFL’s Growing Digital Demand
The NFL, at least for the most part, acts very rationally with its business development. After all, the league has seen skyrocketing profits over the past several decades, so as much as some fans might not want to admit it, the NFL is clearly making great business decisions. They can keep the majority of NFL fans extremely happy with half the season’s TNF games broadcasting free on CBS, making millions off of that deal, and then also encourage subscriptions to their proprietary NFL Network the second half of the season.
But the NFL is acutely aware that live streams are going to be a large part of the NFL’s future, which has already led to some progress in 2015. For the first time ever, the NFL made a deal with Yahoo! to stream one game online completely free on almost any device. This is a very positive signal that at least the league is willing to consider more free online streams in the future.
And credit where it’s due: The NFL recently agreed to distribute highlights via YouTube, a major step forward in their growing digital presence. So now instead of trying to play whack-a-mole with third party highlight channels, the NFL can both own and profit from them via their own account. Watch highlights from last night’s game here for example.
But Traditional Broadcast Still Reigns
As it stands right now, the league is navigating some extremely complicated and seemingly antiquated distribution processes. And to be frank, the odds are extremely high that digital streaming’s revenue potential just isn’t near that of a traditional contract with a major broadcaster, at least not yet. Yahoo! sunk a lot of money and time into developing a way to stream the game near flawlessly, but still struggled to sell ad spots at full price. CBS, NBC and FOX can simply throw any game up on their channels, sell a few ads for beer, cars and pizza then call it good.
And for those looking to watch games online, sometimes it’s simply just too easy to turn to illegal broadcasts as opposed to trying to figure out what market specific games will be playing in, especially while not in the home city of a favorite team. Even Tom Brady, Super Bowl winning quarterback of the New England Patriots streams games online. Here’s his quote from 2012:
“Last year, I was rehabbing my foot in Costa Rica watching the game on an illegal Super Bowl website and now I’m actually playing in the game, so it’s pretty cool”
We will be monitoring the illegal stream trend closely this season, and will report back with an annual review of this growing trend compared to last year once we have more data collected.