Opinion: driverless cars could be NFL game-changer

Television ratings are down in the NFL, and though it won’t affect the league’s revenue – the existing deals the league has with the networks are set through 2022 – officials are concerned about the slight decreases across the board.

After all, the NFL is a TV show. Live gates become less and less important as attendance at NFL games continues to drop, and home experience – big screen HD televisions, no parking or crowd issues – becomes a better option.

But if the better option – watching at home – begins to decline as well, that gets the attention of the NFL, though they won’t tell you that.

The NFL Players Association president, though, has come out and said, yes, it’s got everyone’s attention.

“This is a huge issue for us obviously,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told Pro Football Talk Live. “We spend a lot of time looking at trends. I was thrilled to see the game being streamed on Twitter. We’re interested about where media is going. Viewership is an important issue, stadium attendance is a very important issue to us. So as we look forward knowing that there are a couple of television contracts that are going to come up. I think it is smart for us to look at the impact of whether fans are watching on TV or not.

“I’m sure there after people at the networks who are trying to figure out whether or not there’s going to be labor peace in 2021 and how that affects the TV contracts that they’re entering into,” Smith said.

Yes, the NFL’s whole experiment with Twitter is all about chasing the viewers -mostly millennials – who are consuming TV in a non-traditional way. According to the web site Lost Remote, viewership on apps and computers continues to rise, while the decline continues overall on traditional TV viewing.

The NFL faces serious challenges – embarrassing off-the-field headlines, shifting cultural attitudes toward the sport and still no adequate answer to concerns over player safety. But watching the game itself is not going to be one of those problems.

By the time the NFL is signing new television contracts in 2022, there could be a whole new world ready to consume the NFL – and more mountains of money for the league.

I’m sure many of you have been on Interstate 95 on a Sunday afternoon somewhere between Boston and Richmond – often a 500-mile parking lot.

Now imagine all those cars driving themselves – with passengers who have nothing to do.

Driverless cars – referred to as “user-operated autonomous cars” – will be a game-changer for all of us, not just the NFL.

“Imagine a highway full of autonomous cars with their occupants sitting back watching their favorite TV shows in high definition,” Anders Tylman, general manager of Volvo Monitoring and Concept Center, said at the CES global consumer electronics and consumer technology trade show in January, according to the web site robotictrends.com. “His new way of commuting will demand new technology, and a much broader bandwidth to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience.”

For most people in this country, their favorite TV show is the NFL.

“If you want to watch the latest episode of your favorite series, the car will know how long the journey needs to take and can optimize the route and driving control accordingly,” Tylman said. “With autonomous drive it is no longer just a question of just getting from A to B quickly – it’s about the experience you wish to have in the car – how you wish to spend the time you are saving. With our future autonomous drive technology we will provide people with the freedom to choose the way they would like to commute and the content they would like to experience.”

This “future autonomous drive technology” is right in the NFL’s wheelhouse.

“The NFL looks for opportunities of scale, emerging platforms of significance,” Marty Conway, professor of sports management at Georgetown. “They have navigated the largest emerging waves, cable, satellite, online, mobile, etc. There are estimates of 10 million or more driverless cars in the next decade. With that, the role of the driver and passengers in vehicles are being re-imagined. Currently, that experience is almost exclusively audio in nature. That will change with larger screens in vehicles.

“The NFL is the one and only sports league that grants rights by device and now we see the same games, Thursday, Sunday, etc. split over multiple platforms, to now include Twitter,” Conway said. “The autonomous vehicle is just another platform in that regard as far as the NFL would be concerned.

“Vehicle companies like Ford and Hyundai are sponsors of the NFL, and others like Toyota are media sponsors,” Conway said. “Auto companies recognize the relationship fans have with the NFL and are keen to capitalize on it. If there were an opportunity to have exclusive NFL programming inside the vehicle, I am sure they would jump for it.”

“User-operated autonomous cars” have significant safety concerns to address. A Tesla driver killed in June while the car was in autopilot mode was reportedly watching a Harry Potter movie. And earlier this week, one of Google’s autonomous cars was struck by a van in an accident.

But plans are moving forward all over the world. Singapore expects to introduce a fleet of automated taxis next year. Britain has a $20 million government-funded project underway of automated cars. And for Google – the heaviest of heavyweights – the autonomous car has become its signature future project.

When it becomes reality, Redskins vs. Giants in your car driving home from a visit to the grandparents will the next golden goose for the NFL.- by Thom Loverro, The Washington Times. Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.