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While many will be tuning in on television to watch the NFL season kick off on Thursday, this year the league is rolling out more digital and mobile options than ever to watch the games, with a special eye for overseas viewership.
Television is still core to the league's success. But the NFL believes it can be strongly augmented by online and mobile offerings, opening up the sport up to new audiences abroad and at home, said Hans Schroeder, the league's senior vice president of media strategy, business development and sales.
Earlier in the year, Yahoo and the NFL announced a partnership to stream the Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game in London on Oct. 25, marking the first time an NFL game is officially streamed globally. It also so happens that the game will coincide with prime time in China.
"We think it's a great opportunity in Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia to have that game at Sunday night in primetime and to have that attractive window to watch live," Schroeder said. "(International) is a big priority across the league now."
Yahoo currently has more than one billion people who visit the site globally, according to the company. Its big pitch to the NFL included the fact that it could make the game accessible on every screen, with no cable authentication, no subscription fee and no special hardware.
"Bringing sports fans an all-digital experience allows content owners to make their content more accessible on a global basis," said Adam Cahan, Yahoo senior vice president of video, design and emerging products. "With over 1.8 billion phones globally, not to mention other connected devices, more and more consumers are 'cutting the cord.' Addressing and engaging this audience is critical."
Schroeder said the NFL has seen fan base growth in Germany, China, Japan, Australia and Brazil, and is interested in expanding its presence there. The three London games are also an opportunity to capture an expanding U.K. viewership, while Canada and Mexico are also notable goals due to the proximity to the U.S.
"As distribution becomes more global and the world becomes more global, we're figuring out who we work with and where we build," he said.
The digital play can do more than create overseas fans; it can help the league ensure the loyalty of millennial audiences at home, Schroeder said. The NFL reported it have seen an almost 90 percent increase in total minutes of live digital video consumption between 2014 and 2015.
In advance of Thursday's season kickoff, the NFL announced that it was revamping its mobile and online experience on Sept. 7. NFL Mobile would now allow Verizon customers to stream Thursday night football, Sunday night football and Monday night football games live for no extra charge, as well as purchase highlights channel NFL Redzone for their devices.
A source close to the situation said when Verizon's over-the-top video service eventually launches, in a few weeks, the NFL can be expected to have a presence. The NFL and Verizon declined comment.
Even its traditional TV broadcast is moving towards a digitally native future. CBS announced in September that it would be livestreaming two regular season games, four playoff games and Super Bowl 50 from Santa Clara, California, online this season for domestic audiences. Fox, ESPN and NBC have also previously offered streaming game options.
As a result of adding online options, CBS is seeing increased advertiser interest from brands wanting to reach digital audiences, according to CBS Sports Digital Senior Vice President and General Manager Jeff Gerttula. He called the move to stream online "uncharted territory," but one the network was tracking with interest.
"The advertisers that buy in the game, they want to cross all platforms (TV and online)," Gerttula said. "They're buying the game, not just the platform. If you think about it, it's because it's filling gaps. It's complementary, and you're expanding the reach. It's really one experience."
The NFL's moves echo similar steps taken by Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League to allow more content on digital platforms. In August, the leagues agreed to allow the MLB to broadcast some NHL games online, and the baseball organization will handle the NHL Center Ice Subscription service with broadcasters.
The MLB has long allowed fans to stream its games, and has added tons of digital content with partners such as Snapchat and Whistle Sports to capture millennial audiences.
Likewise, the NFL bolstering its own additional content. The NFL launched a domestic version of NFL Now, a digital video service of streamed news content and game highlights, live shows like "The Rich Eisen Show" and "Fantasy Live" and clips from the various teams. NFL Now Plus adds on-demand online replays and digital live audio from all the games, in addition to access to the NFL Films library. It also added to its NFL.com content and now has four podcasts.
The league also announced it was heading to YouTube in January, while in August, it announced a multiyear partnership with Twitter to allow brands and fans to use custom NFL content. It worked with Facebook and Verizon last season to be the first to test out Facebook video post-roll ads. Sources add that it will strike a deal with Snapchat to share content on its platform this season.
"Across the landscape today, people are increasingly getting their content and their entertainment from a greater number of devices," the NFL's Schroeder said. "We know that people are looking for more screens and more places to get their content. What we strive to do is to make sure our content is on more screens so our fans can get it when they want it and how they want it."