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NFL going over-the-top: A "milestone event" for streaming TV, Piecyk says

Aaron Task
·Editor in Chief

The NFL is going over the top...and I'm not talking about a running back leaping toward the goal line.

On Monday, the NFL announced the Oct. 25 regular season game between Jacksonville and Buffalo will be put up for bid on national digital platforms. The game is being played in London, meaning the broadcast will begin at 9:30 a.m. ET and 6:30 PT. That's not exactly prime time for U.S. fans, or broadcast television, but it is 'prime time' in China, where the NFL is struggling to gain a toehold.

"It's a one game test. We will evaluate fan feedback," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said via an email exchange. "It's too early to tell about the future [of streaming games]. Will test this season with the one game and evaluate after."

Separately, the NFL said it's going to drop its so-called blackout rule, which prevents local broadcasts of games if they're not sold out 72 hours before kickoff.

NFL media executive Brian Rolapp said the league is "testing alternative ways to distribute games," The NYT reports, and acknowledged the obvious: "The world is changing very quickly."

Indeed, the NFL's announcement follows a flurry of announcements of 'over-the-top' programming and new digital streaming services from HBO, CBS, Apple, Sony, Dish Networks - and many more. Last year, DirecTV reportedly agreed to pay the NFL $12 billion to renew the contract for "NFL Sunday Ticket" for eight years, and the league inked a deal with Google to put highlights on YouTube. But the Oct. 25 Buffalo-Jacksonville game will be the first game to be streamed live and potentially opens the door to a new era for the league, and its fans.

"It's a milestone event when one of the premier content providers in the country, if not the world, is willing to offer a game up on streaming only, especially following HBO's willingness to do an exclusive with Apple," says Walt Piecyk, a media analyst at BTIG. "It is just one game...but things have to start somewhere. If you have success and get good amount of users it becomes a milestone event for the credibility of streaming media," which he notes has already gained credibilty with consumers via the success of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Dish Network and others.

Given its agreement with DirecTV and television networks -- the NFL signed $27 billion worth of contracts in 2011 -- the league will be restricted on what it can offer online, at least in the near term. But the NFL is "a master of dicing and splicing content in order to extract the greatest value," Piecyk says. "It's not like they're committing to put a bunch of games [online] but I think they want to get more comfortable so if Google or Apple or Amazon comes down the pike and says 'we want to buy a larger chunk of games' they can get comfortable on tech front."

The NFL's McCarthy wouldn't comment on potential partners for the Buffalo-Jacksonville livestream but said the league is "talking with potential partners now" and hopes to have one secured "in the next few months."

An unscientific survey of football fans suggests some would be willing to pay to watch individual games online but the allure of a more comprehensive package comes down to price.

Currently, NFL Sunday Ticket on DirecTV offers the ability to watch any game live - on any device - for $39.99 a month. The price goes up to $49.99 per month for the "Max" package, which also includes features such as the Red Zone channel, which takes viewers to games when a team appears on the verge of scoring, and Short Cuts, which allows viewers to see an entire game in 30 minutes. But the service also requires a subscription to DirecTV, which is currently offering a plan at $19.99 per month with a 2-year contract.

It will take some time but going 'over-the-top' in a big way will ultimately give the NFL an opportunity to extend similar offers to non-DirecTV subscribers, cord-cutters and, perhaps most importantly, millennials and so-called 'screenagers' who never had cords to begin with.

Aaron Task is Editor-at-Large of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com.