Of all the mega-success machines who roam the annual Allen & Company conference in Sun Valley—the tech titans and Hollywood executives, the politicians and TV personalities, the investors and bankers—the most curious and intriguing cohort are always, in my view, the sports owners and commissioners: Roger Goodell and Robert Kraft, Adam Silver and Don Garber, John Henry and Bill DeWitt. Though quite distinct from one another in stature and temperament, they move around the village grounds with a similar, unmistakable self-confidence, comfortable in the knowledge that they are gatekeepers to the media industry’s most coveted and enduring asset: live sports.
Observing them all in the wild last week, I couldn’t help but think of the integral role they will play in the fortunes of the major tech and media companies going forward. Live sports, particularly football, has long been the linchpin of the entire broadcast and cable ecosystem. The most popular show on television every year is Sunday Night Football, followed by Thursday Night Football, followed by Monday Night Football. And now the value of live sports has become even more apparent in recent months as legacy media executives, spooked by the Netflix selloff and a market recalibration, take solace in their vast reserves of linear revenue. As I reported last week, Disney chief Bob Chapek has decided to scrap plans for an ESPN spin-off for precisely this reason.
Meanwhile, cash-rich tech firms like Amazon and Apple continue to see live sports as a way to dramatically amplify audiences for their streaming services. Earlier this year, Amazon landed exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football for the next decade. Apple TV, which has already staked a small claim on Major League Baseball, last month announced an exclusive, ten-year deal with Major League Soccer that will make the service a necessity for the country’s growing domestic soccer fans. All these deals, however, seem like starter marriages compared to the tech giants’ long-term ambitions in live sports. Both Amazon and Apple, as well as most legacy media companies, are currently considering a new offer this week for domestic rights to the UEFA Champions League, likely to command $2 to $2.5 billion over six years, according to sources close to the matter.
Heading into Sun Valley, the topic du jour among sports-curious media executives and media-curious sports executives was the fate of NFL’s Sunday Ticket, the sports package that offers access to out-of-market football games and has become a staple in sports bars and DirecTV households, alike. Since the NFL recently signed ten-year deals with its existing media partners—deals that will keep most NFL games on linear channels—the Ticket is now the league’s one remaining asset on the table.
Recent reports have suggested that the NFL is seeking at least $2 billion a year for the Ticket, as well as a stake in NFL Media, which includes NFL Channel and Redzone. The reports also note, correctly, that Disney, Amazon and Apple have all placed bids. And in an interview with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin at Sun Valley, Commissioner Goodell said the Ticket would likely be “moving to a streaming service.”
As I learned at Sun Valley, and in subsequent conversations this week with sources close to the talks, the deal will likely come in significantly higher than $2 billion a year—some sources with insight into the talks believe it could come in close to $3 billion. This has effectively removed the cautious, ever-disciplined Disney from consideration, since its own bid came in under $2 billion. (Disney declined to comment.) Existing media partners, like Fox, Comcast and CBS, are also not in contention, I’m told. The race for the Ticket has therefore come down to Apple and Amazon, and while nothing has been signed or agreed to, I have been given ample reason to believe that Apple is the most likely winner of the sweepstakes—and not merely because I was told that Apple’s Tim Cook and Eddy Cue met with Goodell in Sun Valley. (Everyone meets with everyone in Sun Valley.)
There’s an obvious logic to selling Apple the rights, which my Puck partner Matt Belloni first noted weeks back. The NFL would have a new (and very powerful) global media partner to promote the game. It would also be a potential threshold deal, allowing Apple to become a more likely potential bidder for future rights. Our partner Eriq Gardner also recently drew attention to some recent court filings in California that suggest the two sides may be close. Representatives for both Apple and the NFL declined to comment.
There is another possibility, which is that the NFL could decide to put the Ticket on its new, soon-to-launch NFL+ streaming service. But I’m told that’s unlikely, given the high price that the league can command from Apple or Amazon. And it would gel with the NFL’s recent posture, in years past, to build its own media interests while selling its rights to other distributors. Indeed, the NFL has seemed comfortable developing its television network as a pitstop for superfans, essentially always-on shoulder content built around the reality that the games were being broadcast on Sunday afternoons on linear. The only exception has been a meh co-broadcast of the usually underwhelming Thursday night game.
But the League’s leverage, long-term, is that it can vertically integrate its assets and distribute its product through its pipes. That strategy would be in line with where many media executives believe sports media is headed—toward a world in which the leagues cut out the middle men. Indeed, one Sun Valley veteran, Boston Red Sox and Fenway Sports Group owner John Henry, has already started down that path by turning NESN into the first direct-to-consumer regional sports network. “That’s the future,” one television executive told me this week. “Cut out the middle men, own the fan, make more money.”