The NFL begins its regular season on Amazon Prime Thursday night with the 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 recovers billions from this new deal. Amazon has established itself as a serious player in the ever-changing content wars. Fans… well, fans better make sure they have a valid credit card on file, and maybe a teen who helped them find the danger game in the first place.
Kickoff is scheduled for Thursday night at 8:15 p.m. Eastern, and at exactly 8:17 p.m., thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of NFL fans will realize that “Amazon Prime” is not a channel on their cable box. What happens next will determine how successful this whole streaming-game initiative will be in the short term.
The NFL’s Cultural Strength Meets Amazon’s Dollar
More than 18 months ago, the NFL announced that Amazon would be the exclusive carrier of most of Thursday night’s games, a massive $13 billion deal that will run through 2033. At a cost of about $1 billion per year, that means Amazon is paying about $67. million per game in rights fees. To cover that nut it would need to sell a lot of dog food and general household items… which is why Amazon is betting its massive by aligning it with the safest entertainment asset in America.
“Only the NFL is in a position to push the envelope on this sort of thing. It really dwarfs all the other leagues in fandom and interest,” says Mike Lewis, director of the Marketing Analytics Center at Emory University. King in all age groups. It is the only sport that is still attracting the mass market.”
Plus, the NFL thrives on scarcity. While each team plays 162 baseball games in a season, and 82 NBA and NHL games, the NFL’s 17 games are precious gems, each one rare and valuable—yes, even the Jaguars-Colts—for gamblers and fantasy players. For, if not necessary all fans.
This gives the NFL a massive following, even in this world of shattered attention 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 are the fans going? They have already proved their loyalty.
“The NFL hasn’t stumbled yet when it’s using the old broadcasters term for networks looking to leap to the next level,” says Jay Rosenstein, former vice president of programming at CBS Sports. “It happened to ABC in 1970 and Monday Night Football in 1987, ESPN in 1994, Fox in 1994 when he was on the network Life Support.”
The NFL brings instant credibility to any entity it broadcasts… even one that began selling used books in life.
Amazon Studios Bet Big on the NFL, the Elves
Amazon claims more than 200 million Prime subscribers worldwide, a large number that reflects how many people will watch the NFL on Thursday nights. Nielsen will measure the NFL’s numbers on Amazon, as it does for other networks, which will bring more clarity than other streaming services’ viewer reports.
“This is a bold and aggressive move for Amazon,” Rosenstein says. “The NFL is able to look at their history and say, ‘Okay, give us a lot of money,’ then help them grow by giving them a good schedule, and see what happens.”
Between that and a massive investment in its new “Lord of the Rings” series — the most expensive television show ever made — Amazon is pushing All-In on several fronts. The streaming service opened the vault to hire Al Michaels, Kirk Herbstreit, Tony Gonzalez, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and others, and also debuted a strong, classic-sounding theme song:
Amazon has reportedly guaranteed advertisers viewership of 12.5 million per game, which is less than last season’s games on Fox, but still a strong statement of confidence in consumers’ willingness to stream games.
Amazon has run concurrent Prime broadcasts on Thursday nights with the NFL Network since the 2017 season. In 2020, Amazon hosted a Prime-only game in Week 16 — a Saturday afternoon 49ers-Cardinals matchup between two massively formidable teams — that drew 4.8 million viewers, the shortest ever since an NFL Network-only broadcast. was consistent.
The Amazon preseason game alone — a 49ers-Texan game that ran at the same time as the Packers-Chief preseason game on the NFL Network — attracted 1.04 million viewers, nearly half of whom were in San Francisco and Houston. (Home markets will get the game on broadcast TV, and those numbers will contribute to Amazon’s total.) Although the game wasn’t heavily promoted, it still attracted viewers that compared to other NFL preseason telecasts this year. I was on average five years younger.
For example, in the regular season, the NFL is blessing Amazon with more delicious matchups—the Browns-Steelers and the Dolphins—in September. 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 coach’s room overseeing the game; and “TNF With Dude Perfect,” a youth-slanted version in which famous trick-shot loons attempt daredevil feats while commenting on the game. (Amazon struck a deal with DirecTV to stream the game to 300,000 sports bars, many of which are equipped to handle satellite but not streaming.)
This is not your father’s NFL. It’s not even your NFL. It’s your kids’ NFL, and that’s it.
Ignoring today’s fans to prepare for tomorrow
For any fan with a smart TV and a little tech savvy (and of course, an Amazon Prime subscription), jumping on Amazon isn’t any more difficult than getting to another streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. The challenge will be getting an audience who is more set in their own way – a euphemistic way of saying “old” – to understand 1) why they are having to pay more for something that they usually get for “free” and 2) How To Get Absolutely On Amazon Prime.
“There will always be this body of consumers who become concerned when they’re not getting their game from ‘free’ content,” Lewis says. “You can see we’re going the way of an adult 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? Can you put it?’ ,
To be blunt, though, today’s older consumers — or, to be more polite, the already ardent fans who will follow the league across channels — aren’t the NFL’s target market with Amazon Play. Almost no one under the age of 60 makes any distinction between “broadcast” and cable TV, and almost no one under the age of 25 makes any distinction between streaming cable, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, or a dozen others. Doesn’t think twice about switching. Services. For that prized youth demographic, the logistics of getting on Amazon are no deterrent.
“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 everyone in this business is feeling a way of trying to make this work.”
The potential downside of the move to streaming is that the NFL would breach its monolithic position.
“Maybe if they do a little bit of it” [streaming] On the sides, that’s fine,” Lewis says, “but if it continues to piece together, if there are no mass-market channels or platforms, the NFL could find itself in the same boat as other sports. Instead of getting half the country, they would be getting 20 per cent or 10 per cent.
There will be a steep learning curve for a lot of NFL fans, but Amazon and the league are banking on a love of football out of fear of technology and anger at paying another $14.99 a month for another streaming service.
If nothing else, NFL fans can access one of Amazon’s 30-day free Prime trials. It will take you through Washington-Chicago in mid-October, and if you’re willing to see it, you’re ready to see anything.