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The NFL delivered stellar ratings again in Week 1, with 20 million viewers tuning in to Monday Night Football on cable channel ESPN alone, and more than 121 million in the first 16 games overall, the league crowned.
And then there is tonight.
Watch the viewership for Thursday night’s football, despite marquee quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and Justin Herbert of the Chargers falling off a cliff. That’s because the NFL experimented with streaming full game packages for streaming Thursday night on Amazon Prime (Prime showed off a preseason game; more on that below).
The NFL is well aware that the numbers will drop by comparison, but by how much will they drop? And is the league ready for the inevitable stories of fans on social media raving about not being able to find the game and why it’s not on the network?
TNF averaged about 16 million viewers per game on Fox last year, and Amazon has asked advertisers to expect 12.5 million comparable viewers. Experts scoff at it and expect the number to be halved, if not less.
“Last year, they had a special game, I think it was week 16, Cardinals, Niners. It was rumored to do 4.8 million,” said Daniel Cohen, Octagon executive vice president of global media rights consulting. That with all the marketing that goes into it, they can get closer to six this year.”
Former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crax does a small number of projects. “There’s a kind of hope for them that it does 8 million viewers. I think it’ll do five.”
The rule of thumb among media analysts is that preseason games average 20 percent of regular-season competition, Cohen said. There’s only one data point with Prime, and it’s not promising. The August 25 exhibition bash between the Cardinals and the 49ers had 1 million spectators, but half of them watched on local TV (competitions in the home markets of competing TNF teams can be broadcast on traditional TV).
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Using 1 million, Cohen said, 5 million viewers would be projected for Thursday’s game. But there’s no precedent specifically for streamed pre-season games — again other than in domestic markets — so it’s hard to know whether to trust the 20 percent metric. Based on the stream alone, the viewership would come in at 2.5 million.
Amazon has been marketing TNF on Prime for weeks, and according to the company, the platform has a wide reach with over 200 million subscribers. But even the NFL recognized that some of its fans might have a hard time finding the game.
“Our fans have to find it. His behavior is going to change,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, told reporters on Wednesday. While his words are hardly a news flash in an era where sports content is traditional and Streaming is scattered across an array of platforms, making it harder for fans to find their games, yet hearing it from the NFL is notable, as the league insisted on the reach of network television for so long.
Why the league is doing this is clear — yes, the $1 billion annual payout from Amazon is also significant. With young fans cutting cords and watching media on the go and on different devices, the idea is to meet them on their terms.
“We want to make sure we are always available to as many fans as we can and where they are available as regularly as possible,” Miller said. “And in this case, it’s an issue, obviously, like many years ago there was an issue of people streaming in digital moving to a cable platform.”
Miller likened the move to the seminal moment in 1987 when the NFL first aired games on ESPN, a significant shift from the network to cable at the time. Certainly in those first few weeks, Miller said, ratings were down, but over the long haul the move proved to be a resounding success.
The Octagon’s Cohen partially agrees with Miller on the comparison, but he said there’s an important difference: ESPN is a destination point for sports fans then and now. Amazon Prime is not.
Cohen, who has a newborn daughter, said, “The usual Amazon Prime customers go on, well, I can speak from recent experience, to buy Huggies.” “And, ‘Oh, by the way, maybe a new movie or an NFL game is on.’ But they are so, from a consumer perspective, that there is little incentive for the NFL to sign on to Amazon. It’s nice to be part of the ecosystem, whereas with ESPN, the NFL is really into sports broadcasting around the world. There was a need to become a leader.
The TNF Amazon deal is for 11 years, so the league is certainly looking at the change as a long-term proposition. And in the long run, the league may be right, but it’s ironic that the big day comes after a week of good ratings on traditional TV.
“Have you seen these ESPN figures for Monday Night Football? They’re bananas. They’re strong,” Craik said. “And a lot of people were talking, you know, ‘It’s kind of funny streaming so much. was popular. Everyone wants to do it.’ Now I see it’s like everyone else, ‘Revenge of Linear TV’. They’re stinging, you know, streaming.” Linear TV means free- and cable channels.
How will the NFL turn around fewer numbers in the coming weeks, beyond saying that the Amazon deal is a long-term proposition? Cohen expects three things: longer-lasting play, gaining a younger audience, and the innovations Amazon will bring.
From a production standpoint, don’t expect much change in the steady hand of executive producer Fred Gaudelli, who managed Sunday Night Football on NBC for years. There will be more cameras, an extra Skycam, and even a new theme song.
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Amazon doesn’t want to rock the boat too much and turn off traditional audiences. There will be alternate feeds, with Dude Perfect, a sports and comedy sensation. But overall, apart from the stage, the production should look familiar.
Cohen said he’s interested in two areas tonight: If there’s a technical bottleneck, from buffering to outages, that will spark social media vitriol; And can Amazon’s brilliance make any viral moment.
Amazon invested heavily not only in sports announcers Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit, but also in analysts of color like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Richard Sherman.
“Richard Sherman, what crazy stuff is Ryan Fitzpatrick going to say?” Cohen asked. “What’s going to go viral? And what’s going to be interesting? What’s going to be Amazon’s response to Manningcast, if you will, where every Tuesday morning or even Monday night, there’s some guest or (some) trending on Twitter.” Allie or Peyton have said so, so how can they get that virality?
(Top Photo: Steve Sanders / The Associated Press)