The NFL is sending tickets Sunday talks with Apple and Google into overtime

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, traveled to Sun Valley, Idaho, this summer for Allen & Company’s annual media conference, confident that the NFL was about to announce its latest massive television rights deal.

“We’ll probably make some kind of decision by the fall,” he told CNBC at the time.

But after nearly five months, the league is still looking for a technology or media company willing to replace DirecTV as the rights holder for Sunday Ticket, which allows fans to watch every NFL game, not just the ones broadcast in their region. The negotiations are now expected to extend into next year, according to five people familiar with the talks.

The Sunday Ticket negotiations were watched closely by analysts and executives. Live sports, particularly NFL games, are one of the last remaining staples of traditional television. Who the winning bidder is, how much they pay and how the deal is structured will have seismic implications for the sports, media and technology industries.

Bidding on Sunday Ticket’s valuable game bundle could set a precedent for how much tech companies like Apple and Google are willing to pay viewers from traditional TV companies, which still rely on cable subscription fees and advertising to stay afloat.

People familiar with the talks said Sunday Ticket’s competitive landscape has changed as the talks continue. Sports and media executives have long viewed Apple as the frontrunner, with some in the bidding process saying they believed the tech giant had struck a deal.

But in the absence of a deal, Google has stepped up its push, aiming to win a package with YouTube TV, the company’s streaming service, four of those people said. Other interested bidders include Amazon and Disney’s ESPN.

Robert Kinkel, YouTube’s chief business officer, played a key role in Google’s pursuit. Even though he will take on a new job early next year as CEO of Warner Music Group, Mr. Kyncl has committed to working with YouTube to pursue the deal, three people familiar with his priorities said. He has a relationship with Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief business officer, who worked with Mr. Kyncl during Google’s unsuccessful attempt to acquire Sunday Ticket in 2013.

The league’s negotiations with Apple, Google and others have become drawn out as it tries to package Sunday NFL games out of the market with other media assets, including the NFL Network and the NFL RedZone Channel, according to those people.

Last year, the NFL hired Goldman Sachs to help it explore a stake sale to those media companies. The decision was prompted in part by the league’s acknowledgment that Sunday Ticket competed for subscribers with the RedZone channel, which jumps back and forth between Sunday football games as teams come close to scoring goals.

Those people said that by looking for investors in that channel and other media companies, the NFL should negotiate how to structure a joint venture with an investment partner who would likely want a voice in the jointly owned company’s operating structure.

A media executive who negotiated with both Apple and the NFL cited another reason for the months-long stalemate: The two sides had gotten used to getting their way in negotiations.

NFL, Apple, Amazon, and ESPN He declined to comment. Google had no immediate comment.

The league is asking for more than $2.5 billion annually, $1 billion more than the current eight-year deal, which expires at the end of this season. It wants a long-term partner for the rights, having closed its high-profile packages last year for games on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays with 11-year agreements.

A slowing economy could create another challenge for the NFL as it tries to close a deal that could exceed $10 billion over its lifetime. Technology and media companies alike are under pressure from Wall Street and investors to cut staff and control spending, a reversal after years of extravagant spending.

The economic downturn helped some Wall Street analysts about Amazon’s $1 billion-a-year deal for “Thursday Night Football.” Tom Forte, an analyst at DA Davidson, an investment bank, said he’s skeptical the company will bring in enough new Amazon Prime members or advertising revenue to cover its costs. He added that Amazon’s struggle to make money meant it was unlikely to make a serious bid for the Sunday Ticket.

“At a time when tech companies are tightening their belts, it would be shocking to see Amazon spend more for NFL rights given the challenges it has already faced,” Mr. Forte said.

There are similar doubts about the viability of an offer from ESPN. Rich Greenfield, an analyst at LightShed Partners, said the return of Robert Iger as CEO of Disney, which owns 80 percent of ESPN, would likely cut costs at ESPN or sell it. He cited Mr. Iger’s remarks at a conference hosted by Vox Media in September, when he said he was “not optimistic” about some traditional media companies.

Google has also faced pressure to cut costs and reduce headcount. After reporting in October that sales on YouTube and Search were slowing, Google executives committed to halving hiring and reducing spending.

But Mr Kyncl said a deal for Sunday Ticket would not be subject to company tug, two people familiar with his thinking said. He said it would be a good investment because of the YouTube TV subscribers it would provide, which could rival the two million subscribers that DirecTV owes with its current Sunday Ticket deal.

Apple avoided a slowdown in its business for much of the year, but a Covid-19 outbreak at its largest iPhone factory in China has disrupted production and could reduce its sales over the Christmas holidays. However, Apple CEO Tim Cook said he believes in investing during a downturn, and a decade-long deal with the NFL would fit that philosophy.

Three people familiar with the talks said the NFL aggressively sought Apple as a partner on Sunday earlier this year because it did not have any significant business relationships with the tech giant. But the urgency eased after the league struck a deal this fall to make Apple the presenting sponsor of the Super Bowl halftime show.

With Sunday Ticket talks waning, the NFL focused on a separate search for an independent studio that could help produce and distribute football-related films along with the league. NFL Films, which makes documentaries and other shows, made a proposal that sparked interest from presenters including Sony, A24, North Road and Skydance, the studio that co-produced “Top Gun: Maverick,” according to two people familiar with the research.

Mr. Rolapp, who led the league’s negotiations, has met with bidders in recent months and settled on Skydance Sports, which will team with the NFL to develop and distribute film and television projects. One of the NFL’s biggest goals is to market the sport by reaching younger audiences and viewers outside the United States.

Some of those people said that working on the deal shifted the league’s focus away from the Sunday Ticket talks. Only a few senior NFL executives are involved in media negotiations, making it difficult for the league to fully participate in several simultaneous negotiations. Now that Skydance has been picked up, the league is expected to restore Sunday Ticket talks.

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