Negotiations over broadcast rights to National Football League games -- long seen as the biggest prize in television -- have become yet another extension of the streaming wars.

As media titans such as Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp. hammer out deals to show games on their TV networks, they’re seeking new ways to add NFL action to their streaming platforms as well. Inc., meanwhile, is getting more ambitious about using NFL games to attract users to its Prime Video service, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.

Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek said this week that all future sports deals will prioritize ESPN+, its US$6-a-month streaming service. Comcast’s Peacock and ViacomCBS Inc.’s Paramount+ are also expected to gain the rights to more NFL matchups. Media giants are planning for a future when online viewing rules the day.

“We’re steering as many rights as possible toward ESPN+,” Chapek said.

Networks and pay-TV providers, such as DirecTV, have long relied on the NFL and other live sports to keep customers from cutting the cord. So it will be a twist if the league’s latest agreements hasten the shift to a streaming world.

NBC, Fox, and CBS are looking at paying as much as double their current fees, or about US$2 billion each a year for rights to the Sunday packages, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. That’s because they are the most popular-sports programming at those networks, accounting for 30 per cent to 57 per cent of their sports viewing.

The most striking turn of events could be the package Amazon wins. Currently, the company shares the rights to Thursday night games with Fox and the NFL Network. Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch said at a Morgan Stanley conference Thursday that while talks with the league are ongoing, his company will “most likely” give up its Thursday package and keep its Sunday afternoon games as the costs of the rights climb.

Amazon’s video-streaming business has become a significant competitor to Netflix Inc. The company will spend US$9 billion on shows and movies this year, according to Bloomberg Intelligence, and executives often tell investors that customers who watch Prime shows spend more on its shopping site.

Big Media Properties

Amazon executives see live sports as a way to help the streaming service stand out in a crowded field, according to the people with knowledge of the matter. The company is seeking big recognizable media franchises that can draw customers and keep them loyal, they said. That’s why it spent US$250 million on the rights to “The Lord of the Rings” for a TV series. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Amazon wants to carry some Thursday games exclusively on Prime Video, potentially increasing their appeal.

A bigger role for the internet giant will likely accelerate trends already happening in traditional TV viewing, said Rich Greenfield, an analyst with LightShed Partners.

“Amazon Prime taking over Thursday Night Football is a watershed moment in TV history,” he said in a note Thursday. It will “undoubtedly accelerate the demise” of traditional linear TV and cable bundles, he said.

Amazon could help set off a chain reaction. With more games on Prime Video, fans will be more likely to cut the cord. Broadcasters then may not be able to demand the same kind of fees from cable providers -- or the same rates from advertisers.

It also means broadcasters will be less able to count on using large football audiences to promote their dramas, comedies and other programs.

“It is one less reason to be in the TV ecosystem,” Greenfield said.

The rise of streaming is already forcing companies to rethink their channel lineups. Comcast aired an NFL wild card game on its new Peacock streaming service in January, shortly before the company announced it was shutting down its NBCSN cable sports network.

“We’re looking at every sports relationship we’re doing to have a streaming aspect to it,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said Wednesday at the Morgan Stanley event. The Premier League, golf and WWE are all on Peacock, as are the Olympics slated for this summer, he noted.

Paramount+ Push

Spreading sports around to streaming platforms provides a way to justify the soaring costs of rights. And games help drive new subscribers to the services. As part of the shift online, the NFL also has been seeking a digital partner for its popular Sunday Ticket package.

ViacomCBS, which introduced its rebranded Paramount+ streaming platform on Thursday, plans to offer NFL games in that service’s basic US$5-a-month tier.

“We found it is an effective piece of programming to have from a subscriber-acquisition standpoint,” ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said of the NFL. “I’m confident we’ll be in business with them for a long time.”

The online components will further efforts to offer more customized viewing experiences to fans. Disney, for example, offered multiple ways to follow its NFL wild card game in January, on both traditional and online networks.

The coverage included the Spanish-language announcers on ESPN Deportes and teen TV stars on its Freeform cable network. offered nine different camera angles, and a special edition of “Between the Lines” on ESPN+ featured additional game analysis and betting odds.

That’s why negotiating online rights is critical, Chapek said this week at the Morgan Stanley conference.

“We won’t contemplate rights deals going forward that don’t envision ESPN+ being a major player,” he said.