NFL Sunday Ticket still up for grabs as Apple pushes for flexibility with game rights

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) is sacked by Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill (49) in the first quarter at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Tammy Ljungblad | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

The National Football League season is heading into Week 6, and it’s still unclear which company will become the new owner of Sunday Ticket rights — the only remaining exclusive broadcast package that hasn’t been renewed until 2030.

Applehas been among the favorites to land the package, in part because the league already has broadcast deals in place with rival bidders, including DisneyAmazonApple

But existing restrictions around Sunday Ticket have slowed negotiations between Apple and the NFL in recent months, according to people familiar with the matter. Talks between the league and potential buyers of Sunday Ticket are continuing, the people said.

Spokespeople for Apple and the NFL declined to comment.

The NFL and Apple, two of the most powerful corporate entities in the world, are used to getting what they want.

Apple isn’t interested in simply acting as a conduit for broadcasting games, according to Eddie Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of services. Cue oversees Apple’s media and sports partnerships and its streaming service, Apple TV+. Apple is looking for partnerships with sports leagues in which it can offer consumers more than standard rights agreements — such as having free rein to offer games globally or in local markets. Apple has that type of deal with Major League Soccer, a 10-year partnership that begins in 2023.

“We weren’t interested in buying sports rights,” Cue said this week at a Paley Center for Media panel in New York. “There’s all kinds of capabilities that we’re going to be able to do together because we have everything together. And so if I have a great idea, I don’t have to think about, OK, well, my contract or the deal of interest will allow this.”

The iPhone maker is MLS’s exclusive broadcast partner, though some linear networks may buy simulcast rights to the soccer league’s games. The pact allows Apple to stream every game of every season for the next 10 years globally. It plans to build MLS steaming capabilities into its apps, such as Apple News.

While a “great idea” by Cue could potentially manifest into a practical solution quickly with MLS, the same may not be feasible with the NFL, which has been in business with FoxParamount GlobalComcastDisneyAmazon

The NFL last year renewed broadcast TV agreements with both Fox and CBS until 2030. Those deals guarantee exclusivity of local games. Fox and CBS have devised entire corporate strategies around that exclusivity, including buying local TV stations that line up with NFL markets where they own rights. For example, Fox owns local stations in Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; Phoenix; San Francisco, Tampa, Florida; and Washington, D.C. — all places with NFC teams, because Fox owns the NFC Sunday package.

Sunday Ticket is also a U.S.-only product. It remains unclear what the NFL is willing to give Apple to enhance a deal beyond what it’s sold to DirecTV for the past 28 years. Still, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told CNBC in July part of the benefit of selling to a streamer is to “innovate beyond where we are today.”

Goodell said he plans to choose a new Sunday Ticket home by fall of this year. On that timeline, a winning bidder should be announced in the next 10 weeks. The NFL wants a buyer for Sunday Ticket to pay between $2 billion and $3 billion, CNBC has previously reported. That’s a significant increase from the $1.5 billion DirecTV has been paying since 2015. The league is also looking for a company to purchase a minority stake in NFL Media, which includes linear cable networks RedZone and NFL Network, as well as NFL.com. The NFL has been packing the minority stake with Sunday Ticket, though it could decide to sell each separately, Goodell said.

Beyond its MLS partnership, Apple has been laying breadcrumbs that it wants to take a significant plunge into live sports. Apple struck a deal with Major League Baseball to carry exclusive Friday night games this season. And last month, the NFL announced Apple Music as the new partner for the Super Bowl halftime show.

The longer the NFL waits to reach a deal, the less time a new owner of the rights will have to market the product for next season. DirecTV executives have been waiting for nearly two years for a new partner to be announced and have been surprised with how long it’s taken to find one, according to people familiar with the matter. DirecTV has routinely lost money on Sunday Ticket and isn’t participating in this round of bidding, CNBC reported in June.

The satellite provider would be interested in maintaining its commercial agreement to carry games in bars and restaurants or act as a pass-through for the Sunday Ticket winner, where existing DirecTV customers could continue to get the package through its pay-TV service, CNBC reported in June.

Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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