A Radical Idea for the Next NFL TV Deals: Get Rid of DirecTV Sunday Ticket

Ryan Glasspiegel

The NFL rights deals are coming up. Monday Night Football is up in 2021, and the packages held by NBC, FOX, and CBS are up in 2022. Given the magnitude of these deals that will total tens of billions of dollars, we’re going to hear a lot about them until they get done. I have an idea that would benefit the whole viewing audience: Get rid of Sunday Ticket and air all the games on normal TV like college football does.

On Tuesday, Andrew Marchand reported that ABC appears to be getting its ducks in a row to bid on a Sunday afternoon package. He wrote that this would mean going after the games currently airing on CBS and/or FOX. As I’ve written before, ESPN/ABC badly want in the Super Bowl cycle.

In my opinion, CBS makes sense in part because they’re vulnerable right now in a leadership vacuum following the exit of Les Moonves. That being said, the last time they lost the NFL — to FOX in the early 90’s — it sent the whole network into a tailspin. They’ll be reminded of this constantly. It’s highly unlikely to me that FOX, which has a tremendous relationship with the League that was on full display with the improved branding of Thursday Night Football this season, would lose their games.

We know that the NFL always like to have one more bidding network than there are windows, but this would be a fascinating scenario: Instead of cutting CBS (or FOX) out of the package (or not giving a package to ABC), the NFL creates another tranche for the networks, instead bows out of DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket exclusivity, and airs a majority of their games on a combination of broadcast and cable on Sundays.

Think about how awesome it would be if NFL games were spread across FOX, FS1, FS2, ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, CBS, CBSSN, and NFL Network, like the games are distributed in college football (with the conference nets added in). They could even get wild and squeeze a few extra bucks out of us by putting all the London games exclusively on ESPN+ or some other streaming platform (DAZN? Amazon?). In this scenario, NBC would keep Sunday Night Football, and ESPN would keep MNF.

According to Mike Florio, the NFL has an option in its contract with DirecTV to opt out of the deal after next season. It would be an extremely consumer friendly thing for them to do. Even if it diminished some of the audience of the biggest Sunday afternoon games, it would almost certainly increase aggregate viewership of the league’s product.

But here’s the rub: Everyone on the planet knows there’s no reason besides Sunday Ticket to be a DirecTV subscriber. Even at $400 a season, Sunday Ticket is a loss leader for DirecTV, which gains the ancillary benefit of having all those customers as subscribers for the rest of the year. DirecTV as a product does not have any other meaningful incremental benefits over the cable bundle, and it winds up costing more in total each month because you still have to pay the cable company for Internet.

DirecTV, whose parent company AT&T’s merger with Time Warner (and thus Turner Sports) remains in legal limbo, is already hemorrhaging satellite subscribers; if it lost Sunday Ticket why on Earth would anyone with an alternative remain one, unless they cut prices? The NFL really has them over a barrel here, and our best hope as fans is that they make such a draconian offer that DirecTV is the big loser in the game of musical chairs.

As it is, Red Zone Channel has already eliminated a lot of the urgency for Sunday Ticket for broader fans of the league, but Sunday Ticket is still aggravatingly essential if you’re a die hard fan out of market from your favorite team. Under my proposal, just about every game would air on TV. Here’s to hoping DirecTV can’t match the bids that the networks would combine to make in my dream world.

UPDATE: scroll through this thread on TwitterIf you that includes Clay Travis and former FOX Sports programming executive Patrick Crakes, you can see why the league and networks may not want this idea. Nevertheless, I maintain that it would be a great thing for the audience if it happened.

[Graphic by Michael Shamburger]