It was inevitable that the behemoth known as Google and the behemoth known as the National Football League would cross paths. In fact, AllThingsD’s Peter Kafka, who Tuesday night broke the news that Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page met with Commissioner Roger Goodell and various NFL flunkies earlier Tuesday, actually predicted/suggested that Google (or Amazon, Apple, or Microsoft) make a play for the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package last month. Sunday Ticket allows fans (fans with DirecTV, anyway, under the present arrangement) to access games not being broadcast locally—as things stand now, each week only three or four games are broadcast nationally, and on a typical Sunday at 1 p.m., without Sunday Ticket you can only watch one or two games out of the nine or ten being played.
Among the cases Kafka made: The $1.5-to-$2 billion a year it would cost those guys is pocket change (Apple has more than $145 billion in cash); the NFL’s deal with DirecTV over Sunday Ticket expires in 2014, whereas the NFL’s other broadcasting deals last longer; and, like Rupert Murdoch with Fox (and, though Kafka doesn’t allude to this, also with Sky), any of them could use a sports live-rights deal—with the most popular sports league in America, no less—as a gateway to broader television respectability. “You’ll still lose money on the deal, just like DirecTV does,” Kafka wrote. “But think of the upside: You instantly have your hands on the most valuable programming asset in the country, which makes you an instant player—one that can credibly start acquiring other ‘real’ TV programming.”
So Google (or Amazon or Apple) may be the place where, in many markets, you can exclusively watch NFL games. Questions to be resolved include: Could you watch GoogleNFL on an iPad? Would broadcasting certain teams, like Washington’s or whichever team is starting Jay Cutler in 2014, violate Google’s “Don’t be evil” auto-imprecation? Would broadcasting football generally violate it? Who would anchor the halftime show? Would it be Jeff Jarvis? What does @ZizekOnNFL have to say about all of this? (“There are these fields in colleges, so-called ‘interdisciplinary,’” the Slovenian philosopher’s gridiron-obsessed Twitter impostor observed recently, “but the true interdisciplinary scholar exists elsewhere, as @DeionSanders.”)
But the concept leaves me cold, and in a sentimental way I’m surprised by. It is a slippery slope from making Sunday Ticket widely accessible to putting the NFL in everyone’s palms and finally to having completely personalized programming of what once were mainstream cultural events. I know at a basic level Google buying Sunday Ticket would liberate people to more easily (including, probably, more cheaply) watch the games they want to watch. But is that necessarily a totally progressive step? Isn’t there something wonderful about being forced to plunk down for DirecTV and have friends over or to schlep to a sports bar in order to catch your team’s game? I know that as things stand right now, live sports programming is considered more valuable than ever (see: ESPN’s $5.54 monthly individual subscriber fee) because it is basically the last redoubt of real-time water-cooler fodder. But at some point, people are going to realize that time is a construct or irrelevant or both, and stop insisting on consuming sports live.
I know this is true because Google will make it true: The world Google wants is one in which each individual is completely empowered to make his own choices, when he wants to make them, most of all when it comes to what he consumes, which is what matters most to Google and (it hopes) to its customers. In an increasingly fractured society, maybe the only thing that unites us will be the company sponsoring the present year; maybe once a year we will gather during the Google Bowl and tell our kids stories about how it was when different people rooted for different teams because geography and heritage were things we cared about.
Probably I am worrying too much—I have, after all, gone way too long without new, non-preseason football. But I fear for the day when I cannot know that millions of Americans share my Pavlovian salivation at the sound of Fox’s NFL theme music. Things like this Google-NFL news—and there will only be more news of this kind in the coming years—ought to make us pause and consider what else is being severed when we cut the cord.