Exclusive: NFL to live-stream all London games, in talks with Apple, Google

(Reuters) - The National Football League is planning to live-stream all three games scheduled to be played in London next season, and Apple Inc AAPL.O and Alphabet Inc GOOGL.O subsidiary Google are among the technology companies in talks to buy the rights to conduct the streams, said two sources familiar with the situation.

Last year, the NFL partnered with Yahoo Inc YHOO.O to live-stream a London game, the first time a technology company has streamed a game for free to viewers. Live-streaming is becoming increasingly popular as more consumers cancel their cable subscriptions, a practice known as cord-cutting. Winning a partnership with the NFL to live-stream one or all three games would be a big victory for a technology company.

Apple owns Apple TV and Google owns YouTube. If Apple or Google win the rights to stream one or more games, it would be a first for either company.

The NFL wants to live-stream more London games after last year’s streaming experiment was deemed a success, according to the sources, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not permitted to speak to the media.

It is unclear if the NFL seeks to sell the rights to stream all three games as a package or individually, or how much the league is asking for the rights.

Representatives for the NFL, Apple and Google declined to comment.

About 15.2 million viewers worldwide watched at least part of the live-streamed game in October, which was broadcast during early-morning hours in the United States, therefore drawing a smaller audience than regular NFL games. In some cases, the stream of the game automatically started playing on Yahoo websites and consumers who clicked on those websites were counted as viewers if the streams played for more than 3 seconds.

An average of 2.36 million viewers were watching at any given time, according to data released by Yahoo and the NFL. About one-third of the viewership came from outside the United States.

Nationwide broadcasts of Thursday night games on CBS and NBC’s Sunday night games average more than 20 million U.S. viewers per minute, according to Nielsen TV data.

In the months leading up to London game live-streamed by Yahoo, Yahoo dropped its asking price for commercials during the game from $200,000 to less than $100,000, buyers said. Ad slots were sold out. Still, media buyers said the game’s overall viewership and the participation of more than 30 advertisers signaled a success at the time.

Given the big push by Google, Apple and other tech companies to build their presence in the media world, it is no surprise they would want to partner with the NFL, said Tom Richardson, a sports media professor at Columbia University in New York City.

“Professional sports content is among the most premium content you can find,” said Richardson, who is also president of consulting firm Convergence Sports & Media. “If it happened in Hollywood, why wouldn’t it happen with professional sports?”

Separately, the NFL has put its Thursday night football package, which will include live-streaming rights, out to bid and is expected to announce a decision by the Super Bowl in February, according to one of the sources.

For the past two years, CBS has won the one-year deals for broadcast rights for Thursday night football, and the network is bidding again, CBS CEO Les Moonves told attendees of the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference last month. Fox Sports, a division of Twenty-First Century Fox FOXA.O, is also among the bidders, a Fox spokesman confirmed.

The three games scheduled to be played in London are the Indianapolis Colts versus the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 2, the New York Giants against the St Louis Rams on Oct. 23, and the Washington Redskins versus the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 30.

Reporting by Jessica Toonkel in New York; Editing by Eric Effron and Matthew Lewis