- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Social media quipsters had fun joking online during last Thursday’s low-scoring snoozefest between the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts. One of the recurring punchlines went something like this: “If you think this is a barnburner, wait for Commanders-Bears next Thursday.” 

Chances are, they’ll be watching anyway. 

Yes, a showdown between the 1-4 Washington Commanders and the 2-3 Chicago Bears might not be most inspiring. But if the past four weeks are any indication, viewers will still be tuned in — even though the game for most watchers is on a platform that requires a paid subscription. After all, “Thursday Night Football” is on Amazon Prime Video exclusively this season as part of an 11-year deal in which the e-commerce giant agreed to pay more than $1 billion per season.

The investment so far has been a ratings hit: Through four regular-season broadcasts, Amazon has averaged 11.3 million viewers a game.

That number is actually an 11% increase over the first four “Thursday Night Football” games last season, according to Sports Media Watch. Three of those 2021 broadcasts aired exclusively on the NFL Network before the package expanded to Fox. But the strong viewership “validates” the league’s bet on streaming as a distribution method, said former Fox Sports executive Patrick Crakes

“It’s been successful for everyone,” Crakes said. “The league’s opportunity cost was zero dollars. Amazon gave them $1.2 billion a year. … It’s a major move forward in creating the viability of this system.” 

There are caveats, of course, that come with the figures. About 20% of those viewers, Mr. Crakes said, come from over-the-air simulcasts — or in other words, local fans who are able to watch the game on broadcast TV. 

While Amazon is the exclusive provider of “Thursday Night Football,” the agreement between the league and the company stated the games would also be shown in the home markets of the two teams playing. That means Thursday’s Bears-Commanders contest, for instance, will also be aired locally on Fox for those in or around the District.  

Still, the deal represented a shift for the NFL in that league executives bet fans were willing to embrace a primarily streaming-only platform.

It didn’t, however, happen overnight.

The NFL and other sports leagues have been experimenting with digital options for years — with the NFL starting to stream games online in 2015, while others like Major League Baseball incorporated YouTube TV and Peacock to host games. 

Over that span, television habits dramatically changed. In July, according to Nielsen data, streaming services captured more viewers than cable or broadcast television for the first time ever — with streaming accounting for 34.8% of viewership to cable’s 34.4% and broadcast’s 21.6%.

Alex Riethmiller, the NFL’s vice president of communications, told NPR in September that the league’s full-on leap into streaming this season was similar to its jump to cable in 1987 when the league started putting games on ESPN. The sports network “helped build the popularity of the NFL,” Riethmiller said.

The league, now a behemoth, essentially counted on Amazon to do the same. And in turn, the tech giant banked on the league’s “Thursday Night Football” package to drive subscriptions.

The latter may also be paying off. According to an internal memo from Amazon, the company’s first regular-season broadcast attracted a record number of signups for Amazon Prime over a three-hour period. The memo, reported by multiple outlets, did not include specific numbers, but a company executive said that it beat out events like Cyber Monday and Prime Day.

After four of its slate of 15 games, Amazon has also done exceedingly well in capturing the coveted 18 to 34 demo. So far, the company’s Thursday night games have averaged 2.7 million viewers in that age range — a 67% increase from last year’s “Thursday Night Football,” according to reports. 

Before the season, Amazon reportedly told potential sponsors they expected 12.5 million viewers per broadcast. In an effort to appeal to advertisers, the company also entered into a three-year agreement with Nielsen to measure their “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts — marking the first time a streaming company has allowed the ratings company to measure its live programming, Nielsen said in a press release.

Of course, Amazon has yet to average that 12.5 million figure — a threshold that would also be lower than the 14.9 million that Fox and the NFL Network Thursday simulcasts averaged last year. 

But Amazon Vice President of Global Sports Marie Donoghue said at a panel this week that the company was “thrilled” with its performance to start the season.

“Everything’s working,” Ms. Donoghue said at the Sports Business Journal CAA World Congress of Sports.

Amazon has seen its share of criticism, though. When Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa left on a stretcher after suffering a concussion against the Cincinnati Bengals, the broadcast drew scrutiny from pundits for its repeated replays of the injury. Then later, the discussion from Amazon’s halftime crew was ripped for failing to mention Tagovailoa’s previous stumble just days earlier against the Buffalo Bills. 

The quality of the product has also varied. Some viewers, perhaps because of shaky internet connections, raised issues on social media about the choppy picture quality or delayed audio, though plenty of others were unaffected. 

Then, there are the games themselves. Amazon aggressively spent top dollar to land broadcasters like play-by-play man Al Michaels — who makes a reported $11 million per year — and analyst Kirk Herbstreit ($10 million). But not even the broadcasting duo could ignore the horrid play that took place during the Colts’ 12-9 overtime win over the Broncos

“Sometimes a game can be, at least at this point, so bad, it’s almost good,” Michaels said on the air. “You know what I’m saying?”

“No,” Herbstreit replied. 

But those variables are out of Amazon’s control. After all, on paper, a Colts-Broncos showdown before the season figured to be a thrilling matchup between teams with new quarterbacks in Denver’s Russell Wilson and Indianapolis’ Matt Ryan.  

There are no such illusions about Thursday’s contest between the Commanders and Bears. But in the big picture, the quality of the game likely won’t matter. Crakes said the NFL’s partnership with Amazon has been a win-win for both sides so far.

 “If you’re the league, this is great for you,” Crakes said. “If you’re Amazon, ‘We got this new toy. Great for us.’”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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