The NFL goes long—way long—on a digital app.
The New England Patriots work out at their practice field next to Gillette Stadium. John Tlumacki—Getty Images
There was a time when football was on Sundays, and only Sundays. Then, in 1970, the National Football League began putting games on Monday nights. By 2006 it had games on Thursdays and Saturdays too, because, heck, why not?
Now the biggest cash cow in American sports is betting that the broadcast bunch isn’t nearly big enough—that fans want football content nonstop. And that’s what they get with the league’s ambitious new video offering, NFL Now.
Launched in August, the platform runs on a wide range of devices, from Roku and Xbox, to iOS and Android phones, to Kindle Fire. It offers quick-burst news segments, practice footage, game recaps, and even old Super Bowl highlights—everything, that is, except the thing fans have most clamored for: a live stream of current games. The main app is free, but a $1.99-per-month premium version promises bonus goodies like the entire vault of Hard Knocks, the HBO/NFL Films reality series.
There’s plenty of competition for online sports video already. Last fall Major League Baseball Advanced Media rolled out fancy new video-tracking technology to cater to statheads. (Fortune’s own parent company, Time Inc., also launched an app for sports clips, 120 Sports.) But the NFL’s effort stands out for two reasons.
First is that the league is truly going all in: Each of the 32 teams has committed to sending 150 minutes of video footage per week to the platform. Some were already shooting a great deal of video for their own web sites, but for many teams, this amounts to a new and significant workload. A few clubs have made new hires to fill the gap, though the league says it’s unable to quantify exactly how many.
Second is that the NFL is actually trying to fit its digital buffet to its users’ taste buds. Taking a page from the recommendation engines of Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon, NFL Now claims it can learn what type of video content you like best. Such technology is tricky to get right, of course. If it works, it may well be the secret sauce that entices viewers. If it doesn’t, count on seeing so much Tom Brady training-camp footage that you get that not-so-great buffet feeling.
Two of the men behind the curtain of NFL Now are Brian Rolapp, EVP of media for the league, and New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, who co-chairs the league’s digital-media committee with Redskins owner Dan Snyder. Kraft recalls a meeting just over three years ago between Rolapp, commissioner Roger Goodell, Steve Bornstein (former head of NFL Media), Hans Schroeder (the league’s SVP of media strategy, business development and sales) and a couple other execs at which Kraft and Rolapp suggested the NFL needed a glitzy mobile video product. “The one thing the commissioner said at the start is that we should only do it if it’s something that is very high quality and impressive, and it has to be differentiated from everything else in the market,” Kraft tells Fortune. “I think the launch of the product took this long because so much careful planning went into it.”
If nothing else, the way that NFL Now came into being is a sign that, occasionally, the league’s executives and team owners can find new and innovative ways to work together. Kraft acknowledges, “I think most fans would be surprised by the close involvement of the owners.”
It’s a good bet that the most diehard of fans will at least want to try the free app. But for the league to hook less rabid viewers, the platform will have to give fans more than just… “more.” Perkins Miller, NFL Media’s chief digital officer, also recognizes that consumer tastes can be fluid. “In the world of digital media, things move very, very fast,” he says, “and people’s behaviors can change quickly.”
Ask Rolapp and he’ll tell you that the biggest hurdle won’t be whether the platform works well—he’s confident in the technology—but whether people have will have the attention spans and desire for nonstop content. “There are only so many hours in a day and so much money in a pocket, and that’s what we’re competing with,” he says. “Share of mind, share of eyeballs, share of focus. How many hobbies can you really have in this life? And so, we’d better be one.”
An abbreviated version of this story ran in the September 8, 2014 issue of Fortune.