Yahoo's NFL streaming debacle is a good reminder that the games are kind of boring

NFL games are boring.

Broadcasts of NFL games involve very little football, and as our sports editor Cork Gaines detailed last year, 35.5% of the broadcast is players standing around between plays while 24.5% in commercials.

And so with 60% of the broadcast consisting of a combination of advertisements and literally nothing else, it’s worth thinking not only about some of the problems surrounding not only Yahoo’s decision to pay $US20 million to stream this week’s NFL game from London (for free), but also the core assumptions the company made in doing so.

For one thing, the game — between the Buffalo Bills and the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are combined 4-8 this year — is an averagely uncompelling NFL game. Neither team is likely to make the playoffs, and the Bills’ starting quarterback isn’t even playing.

The main storylines ahead of the Bills-Jaguars game is that one of the Bills’ best receivers, Percy Harvin, may or may not be considering retirement and that the amount of money Yahoo is getting for each ad spot shown during the game has cratered.

On Tuesday, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer told analysts that the company sold all of its ad spots for the game, but reports from Reuters and others indicated spots were being sold for less than half the $US200,000 Yahoo initially asked for from advertisers earlier this year. Additionally, AdWeek reported that Yahoo has guaranteed advertisers at least 3.5 million streams.

And what’s more the game starts at 9:30 a.m. ET, three-and-a-half hours before most NFL fans expect football to be on.

So before kickoff, it seems that this is a financial disappointment for Yahoo.

Yahoo’s involvement, of course, is an exciting entry into the world of NFL broadcasting, as it marks the first time a digital-only outlet will air a game primarily on the internet. And with a decline in cable subscriptions seeming to leave mostly sports fans still compelled to pay up for expensive bundles, the entry of Yahoo marks an interesting time for the industry and the sport.

But this doesn’t change the product that is being aired by Yahoo. Which is, in short, not good. Fortune’s Dan Primack wrote on Friday that in addition to being between two below average teams, this game lacks any sort of major fantasy football implications.

This week we got a look under the hood of ESPN.com’s traffic and saw the absolutely insane amount of pageviews that its fantasy football content drives.

And so it really can’t be overstated how much fantasy football is driving the league’s popularity, even in spite of recent controversies surrounding daily fantasy sports. Without this tailwind, Yahoo’s Bill-Jags game is lacking a draw.

But as Sunday’s game in London lays bare, the underlying product — games of 11-on-11, American-style professional football — is not that compelling.

As we saw this preseason, and see almost every week during the regular season and playoffs, injuries are constantly taking players in and out of lineups. And with these constantly interchanging parts, the quality of play, frankly, is not good. The NFL has 32 teams and each team has 53 active players, and so each week about 1,700 players are active, with many of them playing for the first time in weeks or years, potentially with a group of all-new teammates.

What this creates is not only a league of constant change but one of anonymity. The only players that everyone knows are star quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who are given every advantage by the NFL’s rules in terms of staying healthy and staying on the field.

Everybody else is just hoping to get lucky.

Tom bradyTom Pennington/GettyTom Brady, four time Super Bowl winner.

At its core, the NFL is designed, from a competitive standpoint, to create a league full of teams that finish their 16-game season between 7-9 and 9-7. The NFL wants a league of mediocrity that produces 17 weeks full of games are maximized for random outcomes.

What this ultimately yields are one or two games each week that casual fans might want — say, for example, this week’s game between Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and the New York Jets — and a bunch of games like the Bills-Jaguars that most people have no interest in.

The Wall Street Journal noted that the average NFL Sunday game gets about $US500,000 per 30-second ad spot. The Super Bowl looks set to get upwards of $US5 million per 30-second slot this year. So the economics of investing in broadcasting football games seem obvious.

But these rates are for entrenched players like NBC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN. Yahoo, meanwhile, is a complete newcomer on the scene and is dealing with an untrained audience watching a game at a new time of day. And what’s worse, the company ended up with a very average, forgettable game.

That Yahoo might end up with fewer people watching the game because it starts at 6:30 a.m on the west coast and can only be seen online is something we’d expect the company anticipated, at least a little bit.

But what’s less clear is whether the company knew the game they ultimately got to broadcast would stink. Or that almost any game would be this way, anyway.

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