Yahoo had a lot riding on Sunday’s first-ever free live-streaming NFL game— and the NFL says that Yahoo delivered.
Yahoo reportedly paid the league some $20 million for the privilege of being the first digital platform to stream an NFL game semi-exclusively (CBS aired the game on TV, but only in the local markets of the two teams, Buffalo, N.Y., and Jacksonville, Florida). They had promised advertisers some 3.5 million streams in the U.S., and they shattered that number, claiming 33.6 million streams globally, more than 22 million of them in the States—though setting up auto-play video on the Yahoo homepage and on Tumblr has some reporters questioning the numbers.
Hans Schroeder, SVP of media strategy for the NFL and NFL Network, spoke to Fortune on Monday afternoon to give his candid take on how it all went down. What follows is an edited transcript.
Fortune: How are you feeling about yesterday’s big event?
Hans Schroeder: We’re a little tired after a long 48 hours, but we’re really excited.
Where did you watch the game?
We were all here at the league office [in Manhattan] bright and early at 7:45 on Sunday, sitting in a conference room. We had 20 to 25 devices on, all streaming the game. It was really incredible to see. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come and yet how far there is to go. I think the ability to watch a game on any device is awesome for any fan.
Do you feel the stream went well?
We really do. We believe it was a tremendous success. I have to give all the credit to Yahoo, they did a phenomenal job with the game. It starts with a great experience—and what we saw in looking under the hood, and in terms of the feedback we saw generally, it was a really high-quality experience. There were a few problems around the edges, but a lot of that is due to Internet connection and otherwise. The experience for the overwhelming number of our fans was really fantastic.
Many outlets have pointed out that the numbers Yahoo put out there [33 million streams globally] were inflated by Yahoo putting auto-play video in many places. Do you have a response to that?
Well, when we have over 15 million people come in to watch this game, that’s really a remarkable number and one we are really excited about. In our stream count of 33 million streams, somebody had to watch for 3 seconds before it triggers and counted. So if people came on to the Yahoo homepage and were looking for a link or a news story, chances are they didn’t count.
We thought the auto-start was a fan-friendly way to let people know the game was being played at an unusual time, a great way to build awareness. I generally think if people on the Internet aren’t interested in something auto-playing they navigate away pretty quickly. We saw the consumption across the board, we think that the number of people is of people who actually stayed and wanted to watch.
What’s the significance of this experiment [Yahoo mobile exec Adam Cahan rejected that term and called it a “trial”] for the NFL?
We are in another one-year relationship with CBS on Thursday Night Football and they have been terrific partners, you can see the effort in the ratings for Thursday Night Football. So I think over the next 2-3 months, as we think about Thursday Night Football, and other games that we have like these early morning games [played abroad], we think this highlighted that digital is ready for the NFL. And we’re pretty excited to kick the tires on all those opportunities and to think more about how we distribute Thursday Night Football.
So it sounds like if you do this again, it will be for a Thursday night game.
We don’t know for sure. We’re going to spend the next couple of months figuring that out. But I do know there is the opportunity to do more of this if we choose. We do really like the early time zones, the game at 9:30 Eastern, which was Sunday night primetime in parts of Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. We feel that’s pretty attractive to “Watch With the World,” which was the tagline. But it could be Thursday Night. For us, most of our game windows don’t hit those parts of the world in primetime. We really feel that’s a benefit for our international fanbase.
How many people watched in Asia, was it significant?
We’re cutting that a little bit deeper and that will take a couple of days until we have that data. But we have a number of streaming partners in China, and last year we saw increased viewership in places where the early game between the Lions and the Falcons was distributed.
A lot of people mocked the matchup, kind of pointing out that Yahoo didn’t exactly get the most thrilling two teams. Did the NFL want to start this with a game that had a lesser risk? The league wasn’t about to give Yahoo a Patriots-Broncos matchup…
Look, I think we thought about this as an opportunity to expose a game that on its own would have been very limited in distribution. That game probably would have been on at 1pm on Sunday, going just to parts of New York and Florida. We took that game, which would have gotten only a few million viewers, and took it to 15 million people. That’s pretty remarkable.
What fans still want, of course, is a way to pay one simple, flat fee for a full-season digital pass to stream all the games of one team. That doesn’t really exist and the current streaming options are complicated. Does this Yahoo stream make wider streaming options more likely?
I think two things: One is, when you see the reach digital has, including around our live games, it definitely makes us think about ways to build off new models and new opportunities in the future for how we distribute our games. It also makes me focused on how do we work with our partners to make sure we are making the streaming of all our games as easy for fans as we can. How can we expose more fans to the games, but also build the digital access all fans have to our games.
I saw some people say they kind of expected more bells and whistles on the screen, do you feel that way, that there was more you could have done?
We had some innovative stuff—we had a couple different audio tracks in, one was Yahoo talent and team bloggers, and you could choose their audio instead of the Kevin Harlan/Rich Gannon audio. We also had some commerce elements in certain areas, where you could buy a player’s jersey if he just made a big play. So I think we did try to do some innovative things, but our goal first and foremost was how can we create a great experience for the game on digital, and I think we did that. The other thing we can always do more of is awareness and making sure people know that the game is there. We think 15 million was a tremendous number but there are still ways we could be better about telling people the game existed, and getting more people.
Is it troubling or ominous for the NFL, or for cable broadcasters, if fans enjoyed this more than watching on a TV?
I would re-phrase that, I would say that we hope that fans felt this was similar to watching on their TV. And the numbers for cable speak for themselves: When we get close to 20 million people watching every game on a Sunday, it shows the NFL is a great communal event, it brings people together, and people love to sit back on their couch with friends and watch on a television. So we spend a lot of time trying to make that experience better. But it’s not necessarily an either/or.