A lot of football fans are going to be frustrated and flummoxed when they turn on their television Thursday night Sept. 15 and frantically scroll through their channel lineup, searching for the Chargers-Chiefs game that kicked off 10 minutes ago.
When Amazon Prime begins streaming Thursday NFL games exclusively in a couple of weeks, NFL fans will fall into three factions:
1) Those who already know everything about Amazon Prime and choose to pay (or in many cases, continue paying) as much as $14.99 a month for it (or $8.99 in some instances, as explained below).
2) Those who know about the service but refuse to pay for it and would prefer to find a friend - or a restaurant - where they can watch Thursday night games free. Even if you don’t have any friends with Amazon Prime (or any friends at all), that second option will be available because Amazon will allow DirecTV to make games available in some restaurants and sports bars.
3) Those that would like to watch the games on Amazon Prime but don’t know how to do it or cannot access sports on a streaming platform because of geographic or economic reasons.
That last group includes a fraction of fans - primarily the elderly - who understandably lack tech savviness (the ones who don’t know Amazon Prime from the Amazon rainforest), those who reside in rural pockets without high speed internet and those who cannot afford computers.
But losing the viewership of those fans - however many that may be - or fans who simply don’t want to watch a game on a tablet or a smartphone is merely collateral damage for the NFL, which wasn’t going to reject Amazon’s $1 billion annual offer to replace Fox and NFL Network as the carrier for Thursday night games.
So it’s no surprise that Amazon was given a good schedule, including Baltimore-Tampa Bay on Oct. 27, Buffalo-New England on Dec. 1, Las Vegas-L.A. Rams on Dec. 8 and Dallas-Tennessee on Dec. 29.
NBC will still carry the regular-season Thursday opener (Buffalo-Rams on Sept. 8) and the Thanksgiving night game (New England-Minnesota).
And if you live in the city of one of the teams featured on Thursday night football, the game will be televised on over-the-air television in your market, as has been the case for many years with ESPN and NFL Network cablecasts. So Dolphins-Bengals on Amazon on Thursday, Sept. 29, will be aired on a free TV station in Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Cincinnati.
The NFL is braced for losing millions of viewers who do not want to subscribe to Amazon to watch 15 NFL games a year.
“It’s natural that Thursday viewership will drop, with games moving from a free network [Fox] to a streaming service,” Brian Rolapp, the NFL’s chief media and business officer, said at the spring NFL owners meetings. “We [were] averaging 15, 16 million [viewers] on Thursday night football.”
Rolapp reminded me and a few other reporters that “a package was created in the late ‘80s for ESPN, and there was clearly a drop-off in that viewership. We may see that. If you talk to the Amazon folks, their goal is not to have a drop-off.
“I’m less worried about the reach of Amazon Prime. I’m more worried about how many of our fans know that’s where Thursday night football is. It’s an awareness issue more of a reach issue. Amazon is hard at work trying to figure out how to do that. The reason we picked them is because of the broad reach of the Prime platform, and their ability to reach people as well as we’ve seen digitally.”
Amazon Prime hopes that hiring a broadcast booth with star power (Al Michaels, Kirk Herbstreit) will entice viewers to subscribe to the service. I’ve yet to meet a viewer who watches a game because of the announcers, but Michaels brings a cachet and credibility that can only help. Besides calling NFL games on Amazon, Herbstreit will remain ABC and ESPN’s lead college football game analyst.
“I really believe that Amazon Prime’s going to change the way people watch football,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “There are so many people who aren’t watching linear television anymore, and they’re streaming. I don’t believe we’re going to just take a television broadcast and put it on a different platform. ... Amazon’s platform is going to allow us to do things that we’ve only dreamed about to date. . . .
“I believe we’ll be able to reach fans where they are, the way they want to engage, and also use more innovation to be able to engage them longer and different than we have today.”
The move of major sports to streaming services was inevitable but still feels a bit jarring.
The NFL carried a single Amazon-only game each of the past two years, and MLB has two exclusive streaming packages this season - on Apple TV+ on Friday nights and Peacock (NBC’s streaming service) at noon Sundays.
ESPN placed dozens of NHL games on its streaming service (ESPN+) this past season and ESPN+ will carry the Denver-Jacksonville NFL game on Oct. 31 from London.
If you’re unfamiliar with Amazon Prime, a quick primer:
Prime Video is included if you’re a member of Amazon’s Prime program ($14.99 a month or $139 a year), which offers accelerated and often-free shipping of Amazon purchases. Prime has more than 150 million members domestically. You also can access the Thursday night games by signing up for Prime Video only for $8.99 a month, an Amazon spokesman confirmed.
For those who don’t like to watch live sports on a phone or tablet, there are ways to watch Amazon Prime Video programming on a television, as Business Insider explained in this piece.
Among them: If you do not own a smart TV, one way to get Amazon Prime Video on a television is by connecting a streaming player to your TV. Amazon sells streaming players, all of which feature Prime Video. Roku players and an Apple TV are among other devices that can be used.
And for those who don’t want to familiarize themselves with Amazon Prime or pay the money for it?
There’s always the restaurant/watering hole option, though we advise you call ahead to make sure they’re airing the games.
Meanwhile, NFL Sunday Ticket will be carried on DirecTV for a final season before shifting to a streaming service in 2023. Apple TV+, Disney, Amazon and Google made bids; Apple is reportedly the front-runner.
“Apple has only scratched the surface of what they’ll be able to do,” Rolapp said. “You see the consumption of media in this country and its shift to these streaming services. Amazon has gotten there before everybody, but they all will follow. They’ve got a lot of money.”
The move of Thursday night games to a streaming service isn’t the only big NFL TV story this year.
If you missed it, Fox’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are ESPN’s new Monday Night Football announcing team; they signed contracts reportedly worth a combined $165 million.
Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen replace them as Fox’s new lead team this season (which includes the Super Bowl), but Tom Brady agreed to become Fox’s lead game analyst after he retires.
Also, Mike Tirico replaces Michaels as Cris Collinsworth’s partner on NBC’s Sunday night games. Tirico was promised the job by 2022 when he joined NBC in 2016.