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Sports Are the Internet’s Secret Key

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Sports, especially the National Football League, are instrumental to charting the future of entertainment on the internet.

Maybe you think that’s nuts. But Edmund Lee, a New York Times media reporter, said we should pay attention to current negotiations over where Americans will watch football games in coming years. They may determine which television companies thrive in the digital age, and offer a glimpse at what types of programming will dominate our favorite websites.

To conventional television companies like Disney and CBS, the N.F.L. is essential to prevent TV viewership from shrinking too quickly and to support their future in streaming. And internet stars like Amazon and Facebook might — maybe? — want big ticket sports for themselves.

Shira: Why is the N.F.L. so important?

Ed: Fewer Americans are watching sports, but football is still by far the most popular TV programming. The N.F.L. needs TV, and TV network owners need the N.F.L. And whether you watch football or not, the billions of dollars that the TV networks pay for the N.F.L. translates into higher bills for cable or satellite television or online TV packages such as YouTube TV.

The TV networks hate paying so much to air the N.F.L. to shrinking audiences. But you say they’re going to pay maybe twice as much in the next contract. Why?

It’s a complicated dance. Disney, Fox, CBS, NBC and others are trying to become streaming video companies. But they’re still losing money on streaming and making billions of dollars of profit from conventional TV.

If TV networks can make N.F.L. games available to watch on TV and on their streaming services, they hope viewers will stay glued to TV and get pulled into streaming services.

Are you saying that sports, and especially the N.F.L., are key to whether entertainment companies live or die?

Pretty much! I’ll give you a personal example. English Premier League soccer matches are one of the few things I consistently watch on Peacock, NBC’s streaming video service. Sports, particularly live sports and most of all the N.F.L., are still a huge draw. The entertainment companies that have must-watch programming will be the ones that make the transition to streaming.

There are billions of people on YouTube and Facebook. Why aren’t big sports like the Olympics, European soccer and the N.F.L. there?

There have been experiments. Facebook has live streamed some professional baseball games and Indian cricket matches. Amazon’s Prime Video streams a handful of N.F.L. games on Thursdays, and it seems Amazon is willing to pay for more games.

But the reality is, sports on those big websites are just one piece of programming in an ocean. When games are on these big tech websites, fewer people watch.

Why?

Maybe people aren’t in the habit of watching sports there. When an N.F.L. game is broadcast at the same time on Amazon Prime Video and on cable TV, many millions of people watch on TV but only a few hundred thousand on Amazon.

I’ve been surprised that sporting events on Amazon or Facebook aren’t very internet-like. It’s mostly the same as a TV broadcast.

Watch what the National Basketball Association does. It has started to incorporate digital features into the N.B.A. app like statistics that pop up in games and choices of camera angles. The internet-ification of sports isn’t there yet. But whatever the N.B.A. does will likely be widely copied.


One point that Ed made in our conversation is that Facebook has had a change of heart about the wisdom of veering into the lane of Netflix or Disney and paying top dollar to host professional entertainment such as the very popular N.F.L. games.

For Facebook, why pay billions a year for football or Martin Scorsese movies? The company is already getting us to spend hours surfing its news feed and Instagram, with posts and videos that we mostly make for free.

But I should mention that Facebook was eager to grab for live sports until relatively recently. Maybe the company will change its mind. Again.

This has been one of the original questions about leisure time on the internet: Will professionally made entertainment, including sports, win, or will the websites and apps filled with amateurs?

The reality is probably that a mix of both will rule the internet, but it’s a fun question to explore.

There are two basic paths for the online video hangouts that we love. Some of them are mostly drawing people with stuff that regular people make — think TikTok, Facebook and YouTube.

Others like Netflix and the streaming video services from the big television entertainment companies are offering the same as the manicured programming you see on TV.

These two paths do blur. Professional internet stars make some of the most popular stuff on sites like YouTube. Facebook pays for video programming on its TV-like hub called Watch.

A big advantage of the amateur path is that, well, it’s cheap. TikTok and Facebook aren’t paying anything for most of the videos or posts that we spend hours surfing. YouTube does split the advertising money it makes with many people who create videos, but it isn’t handing over Scorsese-type money for PewDiePie to be a star.

But at the same time, Ed said, the internet companies are seeing the merits of professionally created entertainment. Netflix and HBO Max aren’t worried about QAnon conspiracy theories going viral, because the companies control everything that appears on their streaming services. The downside is that it costs a lot. The upside is it generates fewer horror shows.


  • The ripple effects of Amazon’s pay practices: The company’s decision to increase employees’ starting pay to $15 an hour appears to have pushed up wages paid by other companies near Amazon locations, my colleagues Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley reported.

  • The online aftermath of the coup: Reuters reported that Myanmar soldiers and police officers are using TikTok to threaten violence against protesters opposing the recent coup. The app’s usage in Myanmar sharply increased after the military blocked Facebook. And YouTube followed Facebook in removing video channels run by Myanmar’s military, my colleague Paul Mozur reported.

  • They want to share the riches: My colleague Taylor Lorenz wrote about a newly created collective for people who are big draws on audio chat room apps like Clubhouse. They want to lobby the company for stronger oversight of the apps and more ways for them to turn their popularity into income.

    Related: Vulture has a fascinating article about Trisha Paytas, a YouTube celebrity whose genius is, essentially, being charismatic and courting controversy. (Be aware that the article contains photos that may not be safe for work or small children.)

Look at the newborn gorilla at a zoo in Berlin!


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