After Amazon Prime Video spent the offseason doing what tech giants are wont to do — analyze and iterate — the company will kick off Thursday Night Football 2.0 tonight as the Minnesota Vikings visit the Philadelphia Eagles.
Last season marked the start of an $13.2 billion, 11-year exclusive rights deal with the NFL for Thursday games, which had been carried by linear networks and simulcast by Prime for several prior seasons. It also represented a milestone for the sports media business, with the standard-bearing league going all-in on streaming, risking a chaotic leap into the digital void that could have fomented viewer and advertiser confusion. The bet largely paid off.
“We were learning week to week, especially things that maybe you weren’t seeing,” said Jared Stacy, Director, Live Production, Prime Video, in an interview with Deadline at the company’s offices in New York’s Hudson Yards. “The big-picture headline is, it went really well for us.” He cited the caliber of the production and the quality and stability of the stream as successes, “especially when you take into account the size of the audience we were streaming to every week. That hadn’t been done before.”
Amazon’s 15 games averaged about 9.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen, and 11.3 million when Amazon’s internal data is combined with Nielsen. (That additional self-reported number caused a stir among linear networks this year when Nielsen said it would incorporate it into its 2023 measurement, though the company later backtracked on that plan.) By streaming standards, the audience was massive, but it was notably smaller than in 2021, when Fox and NFL Network averaged 13.3 million viewers for linear broadcasts.
“A lot of industry experts thought that that 11 number was going to be 5 to 7,” Stacy said. “Changing habits is hard. I think we did a lot of hard work in Year 1. But we’re going to be all over the marketplace making sure every football fan in America knows that Thursday Night Football is on Prime.”
Both the NFL and advertisers have been encouraged by the younger skew to the Amazon games. The median age of all viewers last year was 47, a full seven years younger than past linear seasons. Among 18-to-34s, Amazon says TNF averaged 2.11 million viewers, 11% better than Thursday nights in 2021.
“We think really long-term about this,” Stacy added. “It’s the first year of an 11-year deal. We’re going to get better over time. We’re going to innovate and deliver new features and elements to customers over time, and that’s what we spent a lot of the offseason talking about.”
One new element this season, thanks to new media rules adopted by the league and club owners, is flex scheduling for select late-season games. Already a factor for NBC’s Sunday night games, the policy means that anything on the docket from November 30 on can be swapped out for more compelling matchups.
This week, that maneuverability provided even more comfort when marquee quarterback, Aaron Rodgers with the New York Jets, went down with a season-ending injury just four plays into the season. The Jets are slated to play the Miami Dolphins in a non-flex game on Black Friday (November 24). It’s the first time the NFL has played on the day after Thanksgiving and a chance for Amazon to combine its e-commerce roots with its recent push into live sports. A Jets game in December against the Cleveland Browns, meanwhile, can be flexed.
Along with the Black Friday extravaganza, which will be made available to non-subscribers, Prime Video has a few new wrinkles in store this season. Sam Schwartzstein, who played center on Stanford’s football team, is now TNF Analytics Expert at Prime Video. “When I played at Stanford, we called it being a ‘methodical offense’ and I found this stat called success rate, which will be a major stat that we’ll show,” he said. “It asks, ‘Are you keeping your team on schedule? Are you putting yourself in a better position to score on each play?’”
An alternate stream called Prime Vision with Next Gen Stats foregrounds data and analytics. On-screen graphics indicate how fast defenders can close on wide receivers, how long a quarterback has held the ball and which receivers are open and what routes they ran to get there.
While Amazon has long been able to tap its corporate DNA to inject stats into a typical production, the company says it recognizes that the general audience also wants an accessible and coherent experience. The main broadcast tandem of Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit bring decades of TV experience and a distinct familiarity factor for viewers, earning generally positive reviews for last year’s campaign. While the stat-laden viewing options, including an interactive Fire TV component, will serve number-crunchers in an era of fantasy and legalized betting, “We’re not just going to put math on the screen to show you all the cool stuff we can do,” said Eric Orme, Director, Live Events, Prime Video.
Reflecting on how far Prime has come in sports in just a few short years, Orme notes that he arrived at Amazon shortly after the company acquired UK rights to the Premier League in 2018, beginning those streams in 2019. “There wasn’t enough internet capacity” for the venture at the time, he said, which required an immediate drive to build a reliable tech stack. Thursday Night Football, by comparison, is “five times bigger than anything we had ever done,” he said.
Advertising, a major focus in streaming overall as Disney and Netflix have mounted high-profile offerings and FAST channels proliferate, offers a unique opportunity for Amazon. The company has spent the past several years mounting a major ad offensive, through both live sports as well as companions to Prime Video like Twitch and Freevee. While the $38 billion that Amazon took in from advertising last year is a small share of its $502 billion in total annual revenue, it is growing at a more than 20% quarterly clip.
“When you’re talking about streaming, there’s a lot of things you can do that you don’t get and you couldn’t do from a traditional broadcast,” Jay Marine, VP of Prime Video and Global Head of Sports, said during a recent media conference call. “We know every single person that’s watching, they’re logged in. So advertisers for the first time can kind of close that loop and see, ‘I advertised here, what was the reaction all the way down to end product sales?’ So that’s going to be very powerful for advertisers.”
An oft-cited scenario by the company is an automaker being able to buy a single 30-second spot but then breaking out creative messages to address minivan-oriented family viewers, truck-buying men in their 30s and the electric hatchback crowd in their 20s. “Historically, you haven’t been able to do that on traditional broadcast,” Marine said.
Heading into the season, ad sales were pacing “above expectations,” Marine said, in part due to the ongoing WGA and actors strikes, with auto and insurance among the categories showing particular strength. “More ad dollars are flowing to live sports and there’s nothing more premium than the NFL. And I would say we’re getting more than our share.”