As Americans gather this Thanksgiving, tens of millions will sink into their couches for one of the country’s enduring rituals: watching football games showcasing the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys while turkeys are being dressed, carved and gobbled.
The National Football League has long been a broadcast juggernaut, with its games accounting for 83 of the nation’s 100 most-viewed telecasts last year, according to the ratings firm Nielsen.
But as the reach of traditional television wanes, and major live events like the Academy Awards and the World Series face historically low ratings, the N.F.L. is embarking on an ambitious strategy to try to maintain its dominance. The league is getting into the production business in a big way, working with partners to bring new programming to streaming services in an effort to extend its reach in a fractured media environment and remain relevant for younger viewers.
The N.F.L. already has more than 50 productions in the pipeline.
“Quarterback,” an eight-episode documentary that followed Patrick Mahomes and others during his second M.V.P. season, was the most-watched series on Netflix for more than a week in July. Upcoming projects include this month’s “Bye Bye Barry,” an Amazon Prime Video release about Barry Sanders, the Houdini-esque Lions running back, and a coveted documentary on Jerry Jones, the unfiltered Cowboys owner.
“I know that the N.F.L. has been very protective of its shield,” said Jesse Sisgold, the president and chief operating officer of Skydance Media, the production company that has partnered with NFL Films on a slate of new projects. “ButI think they realize they really want to attract an even broader audience in termsof people who are not locked in to football every Sunday.”
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, shown with his wife and daughter, was one of the players profiled for “Quarterback,” an eight-episode Netflix series.Credit…Netflix
The joint venture began last November and has resulted in documentaries on Prime Video and Roku. The league is also interested in working with other services like Apple and Hulu, said Brian Rolapp, the N.F.L.’s chief media and business officer.
“If there is a saturation point out there, we haven’t seen it,” Rolapp said.
NFL Films, the league’s entertainment arm, built its legacy on triumphant scores and soaring narration by John Facenda — known as the voice of God — that played over highlights of the league’s best teams in the 1960s and ’70s. More recently, it has produced the HBO show “Hard Knocks,” which annually follows a team through training camp, and five N.F.L. seasons of the Prime Video docuseries “All or Nothing.”
The N.F.L. is hoping to capture an even larger audience interested in the off-field lives of players through its partnership with Skydance, which had a hand in movies including “Air,” “Top Gun: Maverick” and entries in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise.
“I think the thirst for our fans is stronger than it’s ever been,” said Ross Ketover, the senior executive at NFL Films. “And we want to exponentially grow this in the next five to 10 years, not just in the documentary space, but in the entertainment space, from scripted to animated to any other area where people are consuming content.”
Live sports have been a linchpin for network television, with the N.F.L. commanding billion-dollar deals for the rights to broadcast its games. But sports organizations are also looking for ways to reach new audiences, hoping to imitate how the Olympics are presented as a mix of intense live competition and humanizing back stories.
As streaming distributors clamored for more sports documentaries, which are relatively cheap to produce, NFL Films was convinced to diversify its portfolio. The robust online conversations over documentaries about other sports were also hard to ignore.
Five seasons of “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” which began airing on Netflix in 2019, turned many Americans into motorsports enthusiasts. And “The Last Dance,” the 10-episode documentary about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls that aired on ESPN and Netflix, kept fans of the National Basketball Association engaged in 2020 while games were canceled during the coronavirus pandemic.
This year, Skydance and NFL Films have partnered on “The Pick Is In,” a Roku documentary following four teams during the N.F.L. draft in April, and “Kelce,” a Prime Video feature released in September that retraced the 2022 season of Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce.
“We love the idea of having original content to pair with our live broadcast,” said Matt Newman, the head of original content for Amazon Sports, which now airs “Thursday Night Football” and will stream the league’s first Black Friday game this month.
The N.F.L.’s push into other forms of storytelling is bold, said Ronnie Kay, a professor at New York University who will teach a course on sports documentaries next spring and previously worked at the N.B.A.’s entertainment arm.
“A lot of entities are doing it behind the scenes or pushing this little thing and that little thing, but they’re doing it the right way, announcing it and going full power,” she said.
Not everyone agrees. Jim Irsay, the Indianapolis Colts owner, said he was “disheartened” when the N.F.L. decided to invest into Skydance’s budding sports division because he felt the league could achieve its ambitions independently and avoid splitting the profit with an outside agency.
The league built a new West Coast headquarters in 2021 that houses NFL Network, its television and digital platform, and other aspects of its media hub. NFL Films manages shows or other video elements for nearly each network that carries the league’s games, plus YouTube and international broadcast partners.
“I was against it, but other people are asleep at the wheel, in my opinion, and let it go,” Irsay said of the Skydance deal.
Skydance has sold nine unscripted projects and taken four scripted projects to market, said Sisgold, the studio’s president.
The biggest prize so far is the documentary on Jones, one of the most powerful and vocal figures in professional sports. The Cowboys, who won three Super Bowls in the 1990s, are a consistent prime-time draw and drive the national conversation regardless of their performance.
“People have been going after the ’90s Cowboys doc as sort of the holy grail for years,” Sisgold said.
ESPN and Amazon, which both air N.F.L. prime-time games, bid on the Jones documentary but lost out to Netflix, which spent about $50 million on the project, according to a person with direct knowledge of the sale. The person spoke under anonymity because Netflix, which declined to comment on the deal, has not formally announced the acquisition. (Puck reported on the sale in July.)
Jones had said he would participate in a documentary once the league found a new studio partner, according to Rolapp, the N.F.L. executive. Jones led a committee of seven owners that identified and selected Skydance.
As it leans into documentaries, the N.F.L. faces new challenges.
Viewers who root for players to crash into one another on the field may not necessarily be interested in watching Kelce tend to livestock, or in seeing Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins take out the trash at home. And multiple sports documentaries this year were criticized for not properly addressing difficult topics, including Netflix’s looks at Johnny Manziel, the former party-loving quarterback at Texas A&M, and the University of Florida football teams coached by Urban Meyer.
“If the goal is public relations for the N.F.L. and a lack of a critical voicethat we sometimes see, I think that can run the risk of some backlash,” said Andrew Billings, a professor of communication at the University of Alabama.
The N.F.L.’s first documentary for Netflix, “Quarterback,” was a partnership between NFL Films and Omaha Productions, the media company founded by the Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. The series followed Mahomes, Cousins and Marcus Mariota, then with the Atlanta Falcons, through all of last season, but it has been a struggle to cast a follow-up.
Quarterbacks tend to be reclusive during the season, and several high-profile ones, including the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa and the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, have said they declined to participate in “Quarterback” when approached by Netflix.
A representative for Omaha Productions said Manning was unavailable for comment. The N.F.L. and Netflix declined to say whether “Quarterback” would return for a second season.
“It’s a commitment for these guys, and they have to commit to time when they’re already focused on the season,” Rolapp said, “but there’s a lot of players in our league.”
Ken Belson contributed reporting.