By Alan Robinson
Want to watch every possible NFL game on Sunday, not just the games offered on your local channels (in Pittsburgh, that’s 2, 11, and 53)? Since 1994, there has been only one alternative: DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket.
The package, which offers all out-of-market Sunday games (those on any other day of the week are televised nationally), has been a DirecTV exclusive. DirecTV paid dearly for the rights, too; the most recent agreement, which runs through the 2014 season, cost $4 billion.
However, the days when a dish on the rooftop is the only way to see every NFL game might end after two more seasons. During an investors conference call Wednesday, DirecTV CFO Pat Doyle said that if the exclusivity price goes too high when the current deal expires, DirecTV might explore a non-exclusive deal or even drop the package entirely.
The Sunday Ticket package has been considered one of DirecTV’s strongest selling points since it launched in the mid 1990s, and losing it might alienate some subscribers who signed up with DirecTV largely because of the NFL games.
In the past, DirecTV and the NFL have extended the Sunday Ticket agreement several years in advance, but that hasn’t happened this time.
So what happens if the exclusivity contract runs out? The NFL could offer the Sunday Ticket package to the Dish Network and cable TV companies, something it has never done.
Currently, the only “extra” game day programming offered outside of DirecTV is the RedZone channel, which shows every NFL touchdown. The popularity of that channel has made the Sunday Ticket less attractive to some viewers who want to see highlights of every game even as they watch another one, without having to devote long stretches to it.
Another factor for DirecTV: When the NFL expanded its Thursday night schedule in 2012 to run from start of the season to finish (previously, it was a half-season package),Sunday games were taken away from DirecTV. Partly as a result, DirecTV cut the Sunday Ticket price for existing subscribers to $199 from about $325. Another reason for that price drop was that millions of subscribers signed up the previous year with the promise of a full season of Sunday Ticket for free, and DirecTV did not want to alienate those new subscribers with an onerous fee to continue seeing the games.
If the NFL decides to open up Sunday Ticket to cable operators, it could mean that, for the first time, millions of U.S. television-watching households could have access to every NFL game from start to finish without needing a dish. And it could happen as soon as 2015.