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Sports: A Season to Sling?

The 2007 NFL season kicks off tonight, as Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts take the field against Reggie Bush and the New Orleans Saints. While fans across the country are rightfully eager for their own teams to begin play this weekend, there is plenty to watch for off the field as well.

The 2007 NFL season kicks off tonight, as Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts take the field against Reggie Bush and the New Orleans Saints. While fans across the country are rightfully eager for their own teams to begin play this weekend, there is plenty to watch for off the field as well.

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There have been reports of an imminent deal between the NFL and Sling Media, makers of the controversial Slingbox (Major League Baseball has publicly challenged the product’s legality). The Slingbox allows anyone with an Internet connection to broadcast programming from a “home” TV to a single screen anywhere in the world. Therefore, a businessman from New York can watch a game on his laptop in Omaha. Or, if you’ve moved from your favorite team’s city, you can put a Slingbox in your parents’ house.

Under the agreement, the NFL would become the second professional sports league — the NHL signed on in June — to team up with Sling on their Clip+Sling sharing service. The service allows Slingbox owners to record short segments of content (read: highlights) and immediately share them with anyone, including people who do not own a Slingbox, over the web.

When the NHL deal was inked in June, it was easy to write off as an act of desperation. After all, it’s almost impossible to find hockey games on OLN/Versus/whatever cable network carries them. The NHL, you might have imagined, would do anything to get its product out there. But when the all-powerful National Football League makes a decision like this, it raises some questions.

A partnership between the NFL and Sling would severely weaken any future legal action against the company over copyright issues. Moreover, it would imply the NFL’s approval of a product that can compete with other packages, such as Direct TV NFL Sunday Ticket and NFL Game Pass, that generate revenue for the league.

But if such an agreement seems strange, it’s not — it’s just good business. In the long term, it increases the NFL’s bargaining power against TV networks that are desperate to take their content online. The networks currently pay the league over $3 billion per year to broadcast games, but still do not have the right to put highlights on their websites.

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In the short term, it’s another example of the NFL’s ability to adapt to a market that is constantly evolving. Along with a redesigned website, it strengthens the league’s digital presence. And while other sports try to deal with steroids, game-fixing, and top-ranked players skipping the playoffs, the NFL continues to give fans exactly what they want.

Football is back, baby. Have a good season.

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