NFL’s Streaming Era Kicks Off as Amazon Takes Over ‘Thursday Night Football’

NFL’s Streaming Era Kicks Off as Amazon Takes Over ‘Thursday Night Football’

On Thursday, the home page of Amazon.com and is mobile apps transformed into a full-bleed video ad promoting Thursday Night Football, reminding the company’s millions of customers that the NFL is entering a new era, and that Amazon is a the center of it.

The tech giant will debut its first regular season Thursday Night Football game tonight, with high expectations and significant ramifications.

As the NFL’s first exclusive national streaming rights deal, TNF could pave the way for other deals in the future, and with the company leaning into the internet’s ability to remix and personalize content, the viewership experience could be very different than other NFL coverage … if viewers want it.

“NFL fans have a very definitive expectation when they turn on the television,” says TNF executive producer Fred Gaudelli, speaking to reporters at a recent press conference. “When it comes to prime time, I think their expectations are even heightened. If you don’t come with a real quality show, they’re probably not going to come back. We’ve seen, ‘Hey, let’s try this, let’s try that,’ over the years and nothing really stuck. Even on Sunday night [NBC Sunday Night Football, where Gaudelli served as ep for years], we tried a couple of things, but you have to start out with a high-level production with terrific announcers, and the audience will come because it’s the National Football League.”

“Even though it’s a different platform, the one thing I think you can count on is that we are not going to reinvent the wheel,” added Al Michaels, who is serving as the lead announcer for TNF alongside analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “We’re going to do the games. People are going to tune in to watch the games, and we’re not going to do anything that’s crazy.”

It’s no small challenge. The NFL is the most popular programming on TV by a wide margin, and if Amazon can scale it in streaming, it could change how leagues approach partnerships, having long leaned on their broadcast partners and ESPN. But the company needs to deliver a quality product that meets the expectations of fans and the league.

The TNF preseason game last month averaged just over 1 million viewers, but the regular season kickoff will be a telltale sign of Amazon’s ability to drive viewership. Amazon signed a deal with Nielsen to measure the telecasts, including the local broadcasts that will air on TV stations in the home markets.

“It may not happen overnight, but we really think fans will come to this broadcast,” said Marie Donoghue, vp of sports video for Amazon. “And if we serve them the best way we know how, they will come and I’m sure other rights holders will notice. It’s what we’ve seen in the past with what we’ve done in Europe, what we’ve done with the EPL and the Champions League, what we’ve done in the US with TNF on our TriCast deal. So, we’re keeping it pretty simple, the best broadcast possible, and good things will follow.”

Hence the Amazon homepage and app takeover, not to mention the TNF logo emblazoned on the millions of Amazon boxes being shipped across the country each day. And of course Amazon’s reach will be combined with a more traditional marketing plan as well.

Amazon has been telling advertising partners that it expects to see viewership of about 12.5 million people for its inaugural season, according to a source in the advertising community.

The company expects to use first-party data and interactive ad formats to help drive revenue for the games, which it is paying more than $1 billion per year for.

But it is also betting that its own expertise in shopping can prove its sales power. Earlier this week Amazon rolled out a TNF shopping hub with discounts on NFL-branded merch, as well as on Amazon Echo devices.

And the company is leaning into the interactive nature of the internet, with multiple alternate broadcasts planned (including a Dude Perfect telecast to accompany week one’s game), and Amazon’s signature x-ray technology.

“I think the big differences are going to be on all the other things you can access while you’re streaming a game that you really can’t access when you’re watching it on television,” Gaudelli said. “Whether it’s the alternate feeds, whether it’s the predictive and ability statistics, whether it’s checking out your own replays when you want to see them, that’s where I think you’re going to get the more enriched experience in watching Thursday Night Football on Prime Video.”

But to hear Amazon’s team tell it, streaming sports is inevitable, and TNF is just the tip of the spear.

“The consumption trends are in our favor,” Donoghue said. “We’ve seen these types of transitions before, broadcast to cable, and entertainment programming to streaming. These things take time, but they’re happening and inevitable if we serve fans better. So, we’re really excited to be a part of it and hopefully lead that transition.”

The big question, the big hope, for the NFL and Amazon, is if they can bring the traditionalists used to flipping on Fox or CBS or NBC on their TV to streaming video. Trading the antenna or cable box for a Roku or Amazon Fire stick.

“It wasn’t that long ago I had no idea what streaming was, as did a lot of us,” said Michaels. “I find it to be exciting in the sense that all of my friends and my kids and my grandkids all think this is about the coolest thing in the world.”

“I said to somebody, ‘They think we’re coming over the Rockies in a covered wagon.’ I said, ‘We’re coming over the Rockies in broadband.’ So we are the pioneers,” Michaels added.