For the first time in almost three decades, football fans are about to turn on NFL Sunday Ticket in a new place. Sunday Ticket, which broadcasts out-of-market games to fans willing to pay a couple hundred bucks a season to watch games they wouldn’t otherwise get on TV, was a DirecTV product from its launch in 1994 until this year, when YouTube plunked down a reported $2 billion a year to get the rights. Now, you can subscribe to Sunday Ticket through YouTube or YouTube TV starting at $350 for the season, and it will start showing games tonight.
When I ask Christian Oestlien, the VP of product management at YouTube, what to expect from YouTube’s first season as the official home of Sunday Ticket, I expect him to say what everybody always says in this situation: we’re starting small, we want to get the basics right, screwing up everybody’s football-watching experience is about the worst thing you can do, blah blah blah customer experience. And he does say all of that, but he doesn’t actually seem worried about it. He reminds me that YouTube has been streaming football games for years through YouTube TV. ”It’s a sports bundle at its core,” he says, “and the core of that is the NFL.”
That’s why YouTube is perhaps a bit more ambitious than expected going into this season. There’ll be live chat and polls alongside games, and there will be creators at games around the country making their own content about and around the game on the field. “We knew out of the gate we wanted to make this feel like a YouTube experience,” Oestlien says. “That was really important to us.”
There are plenty of other things you can do on Sunday Ticket other than just watch games. Each game will have a real-time highlight reel available through Shorts, for example, so you can catch up on what you missed before jumping into live action. If you play fantasy football through the NFL’s official app, you can connect your account and track your players while you watch. As fantasy and betting in general take over the sports world, YouTube’s likely to be on board. ”I think we could do a lot more there,” Oestlien says. “We’ll do a lot more with that.”
Multiview is the flagship feature of Sunday Ticket this year
But YouTube’s real chance to shine in its first year of Sunday Ticket is a simple one: letting people watch multiple games at the same time. “In my 20 years of product management,” Oestlien says, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an experiment encounter as much popular demand as multiview did when we introduced it.” The company first tried multiview during this year’s March Madness basketball tournament, and it figures to be a big part of Sunday Ticket. “In year one, what we’re really focused on is making sure we give as much choice as possible,” Oestlien says. Right now, that’s not much choice: Sunday Ticket viewers will be able to watch two, three, or four games at a time, but YouTube will be choosing which games. Oestlien seems to notice my face upon hearing this news and quickly adds, “Our hope is over time that users can really start to think about how they might customize multiview.”
The package is called Sunday Ticket, but it seems YouTube’s greatest opportunity might be the other six days of the week. On Mondays, Oestlien says subscribers will be able to watch condensed versions of the games that are essentially just all the plays in a row — the average three-hour football game famously only contains about 11 minutes of action, so you’ll be able to watch the whole weekend in a couple of hours.
A designated “Creator of the Week” will also have access to games, stadiums, footage, and more, and they’ll presumably publish lots of content both during and after football Sundays. What might that look like? Oestlien mentions a video made by the YouTuber Deestroying, who got lots of access to the NFL draft, and an interview with commissioner Roger Goodell. He made a fun video — which doubles as a pretty good Sunday Ticket ad.
Oestlien also mentions podcasters, many of whom are increasingly active on YouTube, as a group that could benefit from more access to NFL content. “They really carry your relationship with football from Monday to Thursday, when it all starts again.”
Part of the overall idea is to give creators ways to share more of the football experience than you might normally see on TV. “I think season one will be all about the tailgate, the in-stadium experience, the locker room,” Oestlien says. “I think creators are going to do a masterful job bringing that to life for fans.” At least at first, he says, don’t expect huge changes to how games are put together on the field and broadcast to your TV. Just expect new ideas about what else you can do at a football game.
Maybe the best way to think about where this might go is that YouTube’s $2 billion a year doesn’t just buy football games. It buys content. What if creators could access, remix, and make videos about football — the highlights, the funny sideline moments, the broadcaster goofs, the touchdown dances — the same way they can with music? Over the years, the NFL and other leagues have become more permissive about how their footage is used around the web, but the NFL could be the first to embrace being part of the creative infrastructure of the platform.
I put this theory to Oestlien, and he smiles. “You get it,” he says. “I mean, look. This is year one. But the NFL has been incredibly engaged with our creator community.” For the NFL, the opportunity is all about reach: the league is looking for ways to bring in new fans and new viewers — and is trying new ways to do so. That’s why MrBeast helped spearhead a scavenger hunt for Super Bowl tickets and why the NFL copied the Drive to Survive formula and made a Netflix show called Quarterback. The league once grew in a big way alongside the rise of broadcast TV and now seems to want to do the same with streaming in a very different way. And for YouTube, of course, that means unfettered access to the most popular content in the entertainment universe.
So what does all that mean for this year? Ultimately, if all you care about is watching games, Sunday Ticket should mostly feel like Sunday Ticket. (Just with comments.) But if you’re on YouTube in the next few months, you’re going to see a whole lot more football-related content than you ever have, all in the hopes that something might entice you to click over and watch a game. And then like, and then — and this part’s important because $2 billion is an awful lot of money — subscribe.