NFL’s global growth boosts NeuLion

By Eric Fisher, Staff Writer, Sports Business Journal

Inside of NeuLion Inc.’s Long Island headquarters, a monitor ebbs and flows with a real-time heat map of the world indicating where demand is coming from for streams of NFL Game Pass. It’s early on a Sunday afternoon on the U.S. East Coast, so it’s Sunday night prime time in most of Europe, and eight NFL games are underway.

“Look at the U.K. and Western Europe. They’re all lit up,” said Chris Wagner, NeuLion’s co-founder and executive vice president of marketplace strategy.

NeuLion manages live streaming of NFL games for the global audience. | Photo by: NEULION

Indeed, the U.K. is the top-selling country for the international version of Game Pass, the NFL’s over-the-top digital video offering, followed by Germany; even tiny Denmark comes in as the NFL’s fifth-largest market for the product. Unlike its domestic counterpart, Game Pass overseas offers live regular-season game streams. Game Pass’ global subscription base has averaged 40 percent year-over-year growth since 2009, and now reaches more than 120 countries.

The demand has also deepened the partnership between the NFL and NeuLion, first struck in 2008 and recently renewed, though both parties declined to discuss particulars of the new term. But as international growth and digital video delivery increasingly become crucial growth drivers for most U.S. sports properties, the NFL-NeuLion alliance now takes on a heightened prominence.

The international version of Game Pass, which for years has offered live games, highlights, replays, condensed games and other content in a single offering, also served as a template for a similar bundling the NFL conducted earlier this year for its U.S. digital products under that same Game Pass brand name. That domestic consolidation included a folding of the league’s NFL Now over-the-top content within Game Pass, and NFL Mobile beginning with the start of the 2015.

“Game Pass International is incredibly strategic for us,” said Perkins Miller, NFL chief digital officer. “It continues to grow and it’s a big point of focus for us.”

NFL content represents a flagship in NeuLion’s portfolio. The company, chaired by New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, overall streams more than 50,000 live events per year through relationships with the NBA, UFC, MLS, Big Ten Network, Univision, World Surf League, Tennis Channel and others. Its relationship with the NHL is changing as MLB Advanced Media’s BAM Tech unit is beginning to manage that league’s digital rights, and will soon debut a new set of consumer offerings. But NeuLion, for now still delivering NHL’s GameCenter Live streaming product, recently signed a letter of intent to maintain a consulting relationship with the league into 2020.

“There has been an explosion of demand as more and more content continues to go to an [Internet protocol]-based delivery,” Wagner said. “It’s amazing how fast things have progressed in just a few years. Content availability, device availability, and video quality have all skyrocketed in a very short period of time.”

But NeuLion was not a player in the global live stream of the Oct. 25 Buffalo-Jacksonville game from London, which was handled by Yahoo. NeuLion’s sweet spot as a technical provider has been more in handling branded digital content offerings for leagues and programmers, rather than acquiring rights. That Bills-Jaguars game was still available in the international Game Pass with other features such as live statistics.

For the NFL alone on a Sunday afternoon, NeuLion manages nearly five-dozen video and audio feeds between live game video of each game, simulcasts of the NFL Network and Red Zone Channel, and home, away and Spanish-language radio feeds. A crew of more than 50 people, many of them part-timers and college students making an entry into sports broadcasting, man NeuLion’s control center to monitor and deliver the feeds and cut highlight packages.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” said Ron Nunn, NeuLion’s executive vice president of operations. “On a day like today, for example, we started with golf in New Zealand, had soccer and surfing going before, football running full now, and will continue later on into hockey and more soccer. And all of that’s coming out of this [network operations center] on Long Island.”

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