Full Stream Ahead: How Yahoo’s Partnership With The NFL Is An Opportunity For Sponsors

While Jacksonville Jaguars’ 34-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Wembley Stadium in late October belied fans' modest expectations of a drab affair from two of the NFL's smaller teams, the fixture itself had far more significance for the future of NFL broadcasting and potential sponsorship opportunities
The game was played at Wembley as part of the Jaguars' four year deal to play one 'home' regular season fixture in London. The location of the game is no longer newsworthy, but the way the NFL broadcast it was.With a fixture between two sides with little hope of making the end of season play-offs, and an unfriendly kick-off time of 6.30am WT/9.30am ET in the U.S., it represented an opportunity for the NFL to trial something new. As a result, they signed an exclusive partnership with Yahoo to digitally deliver the game to fans around the world for free on any device.

The deal represented the first time the NFL has partnered with a company to live stream a regular season game globally and Yahoo paid an estimated $20m for the privilege. The deal came in light of a report from The New York Post that over the last four years the number of young adults in the U.S. who watch traditional prime-time TV has fallen by nearly 20 percent, whilst subscription streaming grew 22 percent in 2014 alone. These insights mean the NFL, as well as its partners, should try to adopt new ways of engaging with their highly lucrative, target audience.

For Yahoo, the game was a greater risk as they had to prove that their platform could keep up with increased traffic. Although there were perhaps inevitable buffering issues, results indicate that they did.

According to Yahoo, 15.2 million people overall watched some or all of the game, which in terms of web streaming a live event, is a significant number.

Although these stats pale in comparison to the viewership of a typical NFL game (Fox and CBS average around 20 million viewers for their Sunday afternoon games), Yahoo’s example of success could mean that when the NFL comes to renew its broadcast deals there may be new bidders at the table. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the likes of Apple, Google and Netflix enter the bidding process, leaving the NFL in the happy predicament of a greater number of distributors to negotiate with.

So, what could it mean for advertisers and sponsors?

Synergy’s Chief Strategy Officer Carsten Thode’s blog on the issue of “protectionism” in U.S. sponsorships highlighted that brands are contractually obligated to commit to a minimum media spend as part of their deal, meaning advertising is therefore a driving force in leading a brand’s sponsorship campaign.

Despite Yahoo offering brands a different platform on which to activate, advertising was still the way brands targeted their consumers as the stream attracted approximately 30 advertisers. However, according to a Sports Journal report, this was only achieved as they dropped their rates from around $200,000 to $50,000 for a 30 second spot.

Significantly, advertisers were also given the option of choosing either a global or U.S. only audience for its inventory, allowing Yahoo to display two adverts at the same time depending on where you watched the game from. However, the UK stream appeared to just showcase U.S. adverts, suggesting that brands either missed an opportunity to geo-target audiences or weren’t interested in engaging the audience outside the U.S.

Such opportunities occur in international football or "soccer" as rightsholders, such as the Football Association, maximise revenues by using technology to virtually replace pitch side hoardings depending on where the game is broadcast. Perhaps with a more diverse and global audience, football is ahead of its over-the-pond namesake regarding opportunities such as these.

Of the 30 advertisers who brought a Yahoo advertising slot, three were sponsors of both the NFL and the NFL International Series, which would already give them the right to activate their sponsorship around the game both in the U.S. and in the UK.

But despite the NFL conducting their annual Regent Street event in London and having a ‘Game Day Fan Plaza’, outside of Wembley none of these brands activated their sponsorship in any way. Similarly, during the live stream in the UK, there was little sponsor integration into the live feed which seems a missed opportunity.

It appears to be an easy win for brands to target fans in game, for example, by offering fans a chance to vote for the play of the game or the opportunity to select their favourite players for the Pro Bowl.In Carsten's blog, our research indicated that around half the people under 35 constantly checked their social media channels during a live game and, by making a game only available on what is normally a fans second screen, the NFL have shown a willingness to trial new ideas. However, are its streaming partner and sponsors missing a trick by not engaging them further? Or was it perhaps the case that by broadcasting directly on the 'second screen', brands believed they were taking away the fans ability to engage directly with them, alongside their viewing experience?

Of course there will be teething issues as rightsholders and sponsors adjust to how viewers consume sporting coverage and, with the traditional television broadcast deals set to stay in place until 2022 at the very earliest, brands may be reluctant to change the status quo for one-off instances such as the Yahoo deal. But with a rightsholder who, at the very least, is showing an appetite to adapt to viewing habits, those brands bold enough to take up this opportunity to try may find greater rewards.