The NFL makes its regular-season debut on Amazon Prime Thursday night with a banger of a matchup: the world-beating Chiefs versus the on-the-rise Chargers. It’s a bold venture into streaming for a league synonymous with broadcast-TV dominance.
The NFL reaps billions from this new deal. Amazon establishes itself as a serious player in the ever-shifting Content Wars. The fans … well, the fans better make sure they have a valid credit card on file, and maybe a teenager around to help them find the dang game in the first place.
Kickoff Thursday night is slated for 8:15 p.m. Eastern, and right about 8:17 p.m., thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands — of NFL fans are going to realize that “Amazon Prime” isn’t a channel on their cable box. What happens next will determine just how successful this whole streaming-games initiative will be in the short term.
NFL’s cultural strength meets Amazon’s dollars
More than 18 months ago, the NFL announced that Amazon would be the exclusive carrier of most Thursday night games in a massive, $13 billion deal that runs through 2033. At a cost of about $1 billion a year, that means Amazon is paying roughly $67 million per game in rights fees. It would require selling a whole lot of dog food and generic home goods to cover that nut … which is why Amazon is hedging its massive bet by aligning with the safest possible entertainment property in America.
“Only the NFL is in a position to push the envelope on this kind of thing. It truly dwarfs all the other leagues in fandom and interest,” says Mike Lewis, the director of Emory University’s Marketing Analytics Center. “Football is still the king across all age groups. It’s the only sport that is still appealing to a mass market.”
Plus, the NFL thrives on scarcity. While each team plays 162 baseball games in a season, and 82 of NBA and NHL games, the NFL’s 17 games are precious gems, each one rare and valuable — yes, even Jaguars-Colts — to gamblers and fantasy players, if not necessarily to all fans.
That gives the NFL clout on a massive scale, even in this world of shattered attention spans and fragmented entertainment options. The NFL can afford to test the waters with a streaming-only option for some of its games, because, quite frankly, where else are fans going to go? They’ve proven their loyalty before.
“The NFL has yet to stumble when it went to a ‘wannabe,’” says Jay Rosenstein, former vice president of programming at CBS Sports, using the old broadcasters’ term for a network that’s looking to make the leap to the next level. “It happened with ABC in 1970 and Monday Night Football, ESPN in 1987, Fox in 1994 when that network was on life support.”
The NFL brings instant credibility to any entity that broadcasts it … even one that began life selling used books.
Amazon Studios bets big on NFL, elves
Amazon claims over 200 million Prime customers worldwide, a massive number that may or may not reflect exactly how many people will watch the NFL on Thursday night. Nielsen will be measuring the NFL’s numbers on Amazon, just as it does for other networks, which will bring more clarity than other streaming services’ viewer reports.
“It’s a bold and aggressive move for Amazon,” Rosenstein says. “The NFL is able to look at its history and say, ‘OK, give us a lot of money,’ then help them grow by giving them a decent schedule, and see what happens.”
Between this and its massive investment in its new “Lord of the Rings” series — by far the most expensive television show ever made — Amazon is pushing all-in on multiple fronts. The streaming service opened the vault to hire Al Michaels, Kirk Herbstreit, Tony Gonzalez, Ryan Fitzpatrick and others, and also commissioned a strong, classic-sounding theme song:
Amazon has reportedly guaranteed advertisers viewership of 12.5 million per game, lower than last season’s games on Fox but still a strong statement of belief in the willingness of consumers to stream games.
Amazon has run concurrent Prime broadcasts with the NFL Network on Thursday nights since the 2017 season. In 2020, Amazon hosted a Prime-only game in Week 16 — a Saturday afternoon 49ers-Cardinals matchup between two largely awful teams — that drew 4.8 million viewers, in line with the lowest NFL Network-only broadcasts.
The lone Amazon preseason game — a 49ers-Texans game that ran at the same time as a Packers-Chiefs preseason game on NFL Network — drew 1.04 million viewers, about half of which were in San Francisco and Houston. (Home markets will get the game on broadcast TV, and those numbers will contribute to Amazon’s total.) While the game was not heavily promoted, it nonetheless drew an audience that averaged five years younger than other NFL preseason telecasts this year.
In the regular season, the NFL is blessing Amazon with more appetizing matchups — Browns-Steelers and Dolphins-Bengals in September, for instance. For each of its 15 games this year, Amazon will run four separate broadcasts: the standard one with Michaels and Herbstreit; a Spanish-language version; a “Prime Vision With Next Gen Stats,” which will be a coaches’ room look at the game; and “TNF with Dude Perfect,” a youth-skewing version with the famous trick-shot loons attempting daredevil feats while commenting on the game. (Amazon also struck a deal with DirecTV to stream the games to 300,000 sports bars, many of which are equipped to handle satellite but not streaming.)
It’s not your father’s NFL. It’s not even your NFL. It’s your kids’ NFL, and that’s the point.
Bypassing today’s fans to prepare for tomorrow’s
For any fan with a smart TV and a bit of technical knowledge (and, of course, an Amazon Prime subscription), jumping onto Amazon is no more difficult than getting on any other streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. The challenge will be getting viewers who are more set in their ways — a euphemistic way of saying “older” — to understand 1) Why they’re having to pay more for something they usually get for “free,” and 2) How to get on Amazon Prime at all.
“There will always be this body of consumers who get concerned when they aren’t getting their sports from seemingly ‘free’ content,” Lewis says. “You can see that we’re heading down the path of a grownup yelling at a kid, ‘Do we get Hulu? Do we get Prime? Do we get Paramount? What’s the password? Can you put it on my TV?’ ”
To be blunt, however, today’s older consumers — or, to be more polite, already-avid fans who will follow the league across channels — aren’t the NFL’s target market with the Amazon play. Almost no one under the age of 60 makes any kind of distinction between “broadcast” and cable TV, and almost no one under the age of 25 thinks twice about switching between cable, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, or any of the other dozen streaming services. For that prized young demographic, the logistics of getting onto Amazon aren’t a hurdle at all.
“The NFL is betting, and Amazon is betting, that Prime subscribers who are younger and have cut the cord will embrace streaming,” Rosenstein says. “But everybody in this business is feeling out a way to try to make this work.”
The potential downside of the move to streaming is that the NFL will fracture its own monolithic standing.
“Maybe if they do a little of this [streaming] on the edges, it’s fine,” Lewis says, “but if it continues to fragment, if there are no mass-market channels or platforms, the NFL could find themselves in the same boat as other sports. Instead of getting half the country, they’ll be getting 20 percent or 10 percent.”
There will be a steep learning curve for a lot of NFL fans, but Amazon and the league are banking on love of football outweighing fear of technology and rage at paying another $14.99 a month for another streaming service.
If nothing else, NFL fans can use one of Amazon’s 30-day free Prime trials. That will get you through Washington-Chicago in mid-October, and if you’re willing to watch that, you’re willing to watch anything.