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NFL fans taking advantage of additional digital access

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At NFL Media's Culver City, CA headquarters, there is a game day operations center staffed by nearly 100 people. The large-scale operation is charged with making sure all of the NFL's digital platforms for airing games are running smoothly.

"We want to give our fans a high-quality experience. That is what they expect," said David Jurenka, the NFL's senior vice president for digital media. "If there are any issues, we're literally able to rectify them within minutes."

The task has become bigger with the NFL greatly expanding access to fans on its digital platforms this year. For the first time, all primetime games and Sunday afternoon local games also can be viewed on a mobile device via the NFL app or Verizon's media properties such as Yahoo Sports across any wireless carrier without requiring a payment or login. Each television network also now offers streaming for its games across all devices on an authenticated basis.

So, if you live in Chicago, and your daughter has a soccer game on a Sunday afternoon, you still can watch what Khalil Mack and the Bears are doing on your phone.

Previously, mobile access was limited to Verizon Wireless customers, and tablet access typically required a pay TV subscription. However, with people's viewing habits changing in an ever fast-paced world, the NFL and its partners are increasing access to ensure fans can watch the live action wherever they are.

"We've always been based on a reach model by airing games [on over-the-air network TV]," said Kevin LaForce, the NFL's senior vice president for media strategy and business development. "That is a core tenant of our media philosophy for decades. We still believe in the value of games on live TV.

"However, with digital and the shift in consumption in the market place, we want to make sure fans have access to as much of our content as possible, especially the live games. There is an expectation of fans getting their content where they want it, when they want it. We have to provide that for them."

The numbers show that NFL fans are taking advantage of the additional digital access. Through week 4, consumption of NFL games on digital was up 65 percent from 2017, with an average minute audience of 326,000 viewers per game window across the various platforms. The growth is being driven by streaming on phones and connected TV devices, where the average audience has grown 147 percent and 54 percent respectively when compared to 2017.

For last Thursday's Minnesota Vikings-Los Angeles Rams game, digital streaming across Amazon Prime Video, Twitch, NFL digital platforms, FOX Sports digital platforms, and Yahoo Sports produced an average minute audience of 816,000 viewers. It was an 86 percent increase over the 2017 10-game Thursday Night Football average, and the highest ever for a Thursday night game.

What stood out for Jurenka was how much of the game viewers watched on digital. The majority of them didn't just tune in for a snippet.

"The overall consumption was significant," Jurenka said. "The duration numbers are similar to what you would see for traditional TV viewers. It shows fans aren't differentiating between a TV, tablet or phone."

LaForce contends that people watching on digital platforms aren't necessarily taking away numbers from those tuning into games on conventional TV. Rather, he feels the increased digital access will produce new NFL viewers, especially in the younger demographics.

"There are younger people who have grown up with digital devices," LaForce said. "They reach for digital first. This helps connect us with them."

Going forward, LaForce said the NFL is looking into enhancing the digital game experience with innovative additional features. The idea, he said, is to make the games "even more engaging."

For now, the priority is to get the word out. The NFL wants fans to know that there is enhanced digital access to live games. That means in many instances you don't have to be in front of a television to watch your favorite team.

"We have to make sure [the increased digital service] is promoted," LaForce said. "If fans know they can easily access our games on all of their devices, I think we're going to see continued growth at a nice pace."

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