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Brian Rolapp

Brian Rolapp
Brian Rolapp

Top TV execs are tightening up their chin straps as NFL rights negotiation season approaches. NFL games represent TV’s most powerful content, accounting for 22 of the 25 top-rated telecasts this year, and determine the winners and losers in the media world.

ESPN’s $1.9 billion a year deal for Monday Night Football expires after the 2021 season. The league’s deals with Fox, NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS and DirecTV, worth a total of $4 billion a year, expire after the 2022 season. Bet that the new deals will be more.

Wall Street knows how important the NFL is to networks and analysts pepper earnings calls with questions about discussions with the league. Last month, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch called the NFL “our No. 1 programming partner” and tried to assure investors that “we look forward to continuing that partnership.”

[Decline in pay TV is] going to mean some changes in the future, which we’re trying to think through.”

Brian Rolapp

Lining up for the NFL is Brian Rolapp, chief media and business officer for the league since 2017. The NFL’s  objective — beyond getting as much revenue as it can — remains  “maximizing the availability and reach of football and making sure that, locally, you can watch your team,” he said. 

But the decline in pay TV is creating a more fragmented landscape, making reaching humongous audiences more difficult. “That’s going to mean some changes in the future, which we’re trying to think through,” he said.

To see what the NFL is thinking, look at Thursday Night Football, a combination of broadcast with Fox, cable with the NFL Network and streaming with Amazon Prime Video. Rolapp said Thursday has been the NFL’s “strategic game package” and that its digital viewership is now bigger than the audiences other sports get on television.

Another experiment comes when playoff games go digital on CBS All Access and Peacock. Will that build reach? “We’ll find out,” Rolapp said. “We applaud their efforts to figure out how to innovate in this changing world, and we certainly want them to be successful.”

Rolapp doesn’t expect COVID to depress how much money the NFL will seek, or how much partners will be willing to pay. “We have not seen a lack of interest because of economic concerns,” he noted.