Apple Dropped the Ball on an NFL Deal

 |  Includes: AAPL, CMCSA, NFLX, T, TWX, YHOO
by: Murphy Mac

This past March DirecTV (DTV) re-signed the NFL to Sunday Ticket, extending their exclusive rights to 2014. The last deal, inked in 2004, had a 2010 expiration. Where was Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) during the negotiation?

There's room for additional distribution of NFL games. And the current Sunday Ticket model isn't a good match for everyone. DirecTV packages the NFL as an entire season, largely because that's the way the NFL wants it. During prior negotiations in 2002 and 2004 cable companies pushed for a la carte distribution, making games akin to pay-per-view events. The NFL dug in and sold exclusive rights to DirecTV.

But that was then and this is now. Times change and the NFL would be shortsighted if they didn't embrace other methods of distribution and other revenue streams. They already do through a deal with Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), but not in the United States.

Granted, exclusives usually mean fat margins, and it looks like DirecTV overpays for Sunday Ticket, much like AT&T (NYSE:T) pays full retail for iPhones. DirecTV is basically subsidizing Sunday Ticket and adding new subscribers for the expense. Sound familiar?

Even back in 2004 when DirecTV paid $400M for the rights to Sunday Ticket it was largely seen as a wash. The exclusive led to rooftop installations for customers who otherwise would have stuck with cable. Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) have no competing product. Further, those same cable companies were in a squabble with the league over the NFL Network. Pricing for the network led to cable providers dropping the channel. That left diehard fans who wanted 24 hours of coverage further motivated to put up the dish.

What would an Apple NFL package look like? A la carte pricing fits right into the iTunes model. Fifteen dollars per game, streamed live in high-definition. DirecTV could point out that for about the same money their subscribers get multiple games each Sunday, along with the ability to hop between channels. At $300 for the season Sunday Ticket works out to about $17 per week.

The deal DirecTV signed in March was for four years, a billion dollars per year. Sounds like DirecTV can't survive without the NFL, and that should have given Apple leverage at the bargaining table. Apple has billions in cash they could have tapped for a deal. It would have reduced what DirecTV had to pay for its coverage, but perhaps opened the floodgates for cable companies to move in.

The NFL on Apple TV lifts the device from the "hobby" status Apple has assigned it. Buyers would benefit multiple ways over DirecTV: No monthly charge. No dish. No paying for games they won't watch. No contract. The exodus from DirecTV could be significant. And it could introduce a whole new market segment to Apple products.

Netflix offers a Roku set-top box for streaming their Watch Now content to subscriber televisions. The box is only a hundred dollars and has added a significant product: Major League Baseball. No, baseball isn't the NFL. But for thirty-five dollars fans can watch as much out-of-market baseball as they can take. Live, streaming in high-definition. Baseball might not have the pull that football does, but this was another wake-up call for traditional television outlets.

For many consumers looking to quit cable or the dish there was a problem: live sporting events. The MLB deal changes that, making live baseball games easily accessible and affordable. $35 for the rest of the season. Not every month - but for the remaining season. At only a hundred dollars the Roku box is almost a no-brainer for current Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) customers, especially baseball fans.

If Jobs and Cook didn't negotiate with the NFL their stockholders should wonder why. Apple can always try again in 2014. Rumors are flying that Cupertino has Apple TV announcements lined up for next month. It's doubtful any of them are as big as an NFL deal would have been.

Disclosure: Long AAPL.