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How Amazon's foray into NFL streaming impacts the viewer — and the business

Amazon is about to change how you watch — or don't watch — the NFL.

After lucrative rights negotiations and months of high-profile talent acquisition, "Thursday Night Football" will makes its Amazon Prime debut on Sept. 15. Up first: an AFC West showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers, featuring rivals with Super Bowl aspirations and two of the game's most electric young quarterbacks. It's a fine way to kick things off.

Take note — that's a Week 2 matchup. The NFL is certainly excited about its new partnership with the America's dominant retailer and the roughly $1 billion annual rights fee that comes with it. It's just not limiting its Sept. 8 season kickoff between the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo Bills to a streaming audience. NBC will handle that game. Which brings us to the crux of the change.

Not since the advent of the RedZone channel or perhaps the 2006 premier of "Thursday Night Football" itself has the business of delivering the NFL to fans undergone such a seismic shift.

NFL fans without Amazon Prime have a decision to make this fall. (AP Photo/Doug Benc)
NFL fans without Amazon Prime have a decision to make this fall. (AP Photo/Doug Benc) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

How will 'TNF' on Amazon Prime impact the viewer?

The most glaring impact of Amazon's foray into NFL coverage is that one must subscribe to Amazon Prime to watch out-of-market "TNF" games (in-market games will still air on local airwaves). This won't be an issue for a large swath of fans.

CEO Jeff Bezos announced in 2021 that global Prime membership had exceeded 200 million worldwide. Amazon doesn't divulge specific numbers of U.S. subscribers, but industry estimates have placed that tally anywhere between 147 million and 172 million members in recent years, a number that was inflated at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as more consumers opted to have goods delivered to their homes.

In short, if you're a football fan (or not) in America, there's a good chance you already subscribe. But there are plenty of NFL fans out there who don't — for myriad reasons, whether it be ethical, budgetary or otherwise. Amazon announced in February that the price of membership is going up from $119 annually to $139. For football fans who don't already subscribe, that now becomes the cost of watching "TNF." Is it worth it? That all depends on the individual consumer.

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For some, the price will certainly be too much for a single game a week amid an increasingly fractured streaming landscape that's asking sports fans to shell out subscription fees across multiple platforms. You're a UFC fan? Get an ESPN+ subscription. Baseball? Sign up for Peacock. And Apple TV+. Wanna watch all the Premier League action? Peacock again. Now Amazon is hoping you'll come on over to watch the NFL.

Can you watch 'Thursday Night Football' without Prime?

There is one exception that's reportedly about to be announced — bars and restaurants. They won't have to work streaming into their infrastructure.

After initially reporting earlier this month that Amazon agreed to have DirectTV continue to provide "TNF" coverage to bars and restaurants, Sports Business Journal's John Ourand reported Tuesday that an official announcement was imminent, with comments from DirecTV Chief Content Officer Rob Thun that seemed to confirm it.

So fans will likely be able to hit up their favorite sports bar to catch "TNF" in the fall. For fans declining to subscribe because of budgetary concerns, a night out with a bar/restaurant tab might not be the answer.

What to expect from 'TNF' broadcast

This is one of the most anticipated elements of the new football season. How strong is Amazon's broadcast game as it takes on America's king of sports? All signs point to very.

Amazon has kept Bezos in an ongoing competition with Elon Musk as the world's richest man. After committing roughly $1 billion annually in rights fees, Amazon's not skimping on the product.

Amazon's secured deals with a number high-profile sportscasters, most notably play-by-play icon Al Michaels, who will anchor the platform's game coverage. Exact terms of his deal weren't disclosed, but it's reportedly in the range of $15 million annually. He'll be joined in the booth by analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who will moonlight with Amazon alongside his regular job as ESPN's top college football voice.

"Thursday Night Football" viewers will hear a familiar voice on the call in Al Michaels. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
"Thursday Night Football" viewers will hear a familiar voice on the call in Al Michaels. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The studio show will include the likes of fellow NFL and broadcasting mainstays Tony Gonzalez and Richard Sherman, as well as veteran NFL reporter Michael Smith and host Charissa Thompson, who will reportedly take on the role in addition to her Sunday duties as the host of "Fox NFL Kickoff." (Aqib Talib was also scheduled to take part, but he decided to step away in light of his brother's alleged involvement in a shooting death at a youth football game in Texas.)

Will the investment in talent lead to more subscribers and viewers? Amazon believes so. At least that's the company line.

"This new duo will certainly resonate with our viewers and keep them coming back to watch on Prime Video and Twitch week after week," Amazon's head of ad sales Danielle Carney said in an April company statement in response to the acquisitions of Michaels and Herbstreit.

Will the broadcast talent really make a dent on Amazon's bottom line? That's difficult to quantify. Matchups and stakes drive ratings, not who's on the mic. The real value here is in legitimacy.

Amazon's "TNF" coverage is the first step in what's expected to be more exclusive streaming NFL coverage — see the ongoing "NFL Sunday Ticket" negotiations. It can't afford to present a product that's not in line with the NFL's standards. The league surely wouldn't have done business with Amazon without quality assurances. Expect some growing pains, but an overall premium product.

Amazon is reportedly warning of reduced viewership

A quality product is in place. An unusually enticing Thursday night slate featuring Ravens-Buccaneers, Colts-Broncos, Packers-Titans and Bills-Patriots, in addition to its AFC West kickoff, also bodes well for Amazon. But it's reportedly already bracing advertisers for a ratings dip from previous seasons.

The Thursday night lineup features some enticing matchups starting with Chiefs-Chargers. (Kirby Lee/Reuters)
The Thursday night lineup features some enticing matchups starting with Chiefs-Chargers. (Kirby Lee/Reuters) (USA Today Sports / reuters)

AdAge reported on Monday that Amazon told advertisers in a recent sales pitch to expect lower numbers while charging less for 30-second ad spots than Fox did on Thursday nights last season.

"Amazon took estimates down pretty significantly versus what there was out there from Fox," an ad executive told AdAge.

Meanwhile, Nielsen will provide data to back up those viewership numbers in a first-of-its kind streaming deal. Amazon and Nielsen announced on Tuesday that they reached a three-year agreement for the media data firm to provide ratings numbers for "TNF." It marks the first time in Nielsen's history that the firm responsible for tabulating traditional TV ratings will report on streaming numbers.

Do reduced numbers matter for Amazon?

So is this a problem for Amazon? Not likely. The reduced viewership estimates were surely baked in long before Amazon put in its final bid for the streaming rights. Common sense dictates that a product that was previously available over airwaves and traditional cable and satellite formats won't be as easy for viewers to access on a less-familiar streaming platform.

Meanwhile, Amazon's financial structure and motivations differ from Fox's, ESPN's and NBC's. Prime is a portal for Amazon to generate revenue through other avenues. Folks who tune into watch "TNF" may stick around to watch the latest offering from Amazon Studios. They may stumble upon a third-party studio in the Prime network that generates revenue for Amazon.

The New York Times reports that streaming services like HBO Max and Starz pay Amazon 15% or more of each subscription sold through Prime. Per the Times, these deals generate more than $3 billion annually. And that's before millions log in every week to watch NFL football.

And now there are reported talks of a Black Friday game streaming on Prime. Because what better way to keep folks home and out of the Best Buy and Walmart aisles on the busiest shopping day of the year?

Meanwhile, in the era of streaming and DVR, live sports is the last vestige of must-watch commercial live TV. Sports fans largely want to watch games as they happen, even if it means sitting through ads they're conditioned to bypass elsewhere. And a bad day at the NFL ratings office is still monumentally better than any other broadcast's best day.

Per the Sports Business Journal, 95 of the top 100 rated TV programs in 2021 were sports games. Of those, 75 were NFL games. Per the report, the NFL claimed 15 of the top 16-rated broadcasts in 2021 and 29 of the top 31. President Joe Biden's inauguration snuck in as the seventh-most watched program of the year while his address to Congress in April ranked 17th. Football is king and a lucrative opportunity for Amazon.

This all adds up to the inevitable. Amazon's NFL streaming deal is not a blip. It's the future. Traditional broadcasts aren't going away. But streaming's foothold backed up by deep pockets such as Amazon's and Apple's are an ingrained and growing part of the sports and NFL landscape.

For consumers, it comes down to priorities and how much they're willing to pay.