The NFL is a TV ratings powerhouse and makes billions each year on selling television rights. However, fans don’t see the same action that the league and teams watch because the league claims its “All-22” view is proprietary information:
If you ask the league to see the footage that was taken from on high to show the entire field and what all 22 players did on every play, the response will be emphatic. “NO ONE gets that,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email. This footage, added fellow league spokesman Greg Aiello, “is regarded at this point as proprietary NFL coaching information.”
For decades, NFL TV broadcasts have relied most heavily on one view: the shot from a sideline camera that follows the progress of the ball. Anyone who wants to analyze the game, however, prefers to see the pulled-back camera angle known as the “All 22.”
While this shot makes the players look like stick figures, it allows students of the game to see things that are invisible to TV watchers: like what routes the receivers ran, how the defense aligned itself and who made blocks past the line of scrimmage.
By distributing this footage only to NFL teams, and rationing it out carefully to its TV partners and on its web site, the NFL has created a paradox. The most-watched sport in the U.S. is also arguably the least understood. “I don’t think you can get a full understanding without watching the entirety of the game,” says former head coach Bill Parcells. The zoomed-in footage on TV broadcasts, he says, only shows a “fragment” of what happens on the field.
Why does the NFL do this? Here are a few plausible scenarios:
1. It can do it so it will. The NFL won’t be bullied into doing something it doesn’t want to do. As long as the money keeps pouring in for TV rights, there is little pressure the public can put on the league for this footage.
1a. If enough fans and commentators picked up on this, could they force the NFL’s hand? It seems unlikely.
2. The NFL makes billions on TV rights and perhaps wants to package this video in a certain way. A later part of the story suggests the NFL has quietly floated the idea of selling access to this footage.
3. The league is worried about legitimate football competitors. There are not currently any viable threats but this could pop up again.
4. The league thinks this is the core data of the NFL, what actually happens on all plays, and will go to great lengths to protect its “intellectual property.” I find this a little hard to believe: aren’t there plenty of people who could understand and scheme what happens on a football field even if the primary camera angle doesn’t show it? Are teams really that worried about what the public might see or that other teams are missing things in the video?