A new NFL era begins for Thursday night football broadcasts with Amazon : NPR

Left: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes passes during a game in 2017. Right: Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert looks for a pass during a game the last year.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

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Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Left: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes passes during a game in 2017. Right: Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert looks for a pass during a game the last year.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Imagine this scene tonight.

You are a die-hard NFL fan. Let’s call ourselves Julie. You, Julie, settle into your comfortable sofa in front of your big screen TV, imagining the offensive fireworks you are about to watch. Thursday night’s second game of this young season couldn’t be better – the Kansas City Chiefs and their dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes, against the Los Angeles Chargers and their dynamic signalman, Justin Herbert.

So you point the remote, but there’s no Thursday night game on Fox like there was last year. Hmmm, you say. Well, let’s try the NFL Network, because it also aired TNF games.

No. No Mahomes, no Herbert, either.

And then your son walks into the living room with his eyes glued to his phone and says “hey mum – are you ready for football??!!”

“Yes,” you say, a bit frantically, “but where?”

“Here!” he said lifting the phone. “Streaming! Only streaming!”

He’s almost 100% right. Thursday night matches will still be shown for free on live TV in the home markets of both teams playing. And they will be broadcast in bars and restaurants across the country.

But for football-loving homebodies like Julie, tonight marks the next big step — and a potential challenge — in how she consumes the NFL, still this country’s No. 1 spectator sport.

For the first time, the league will broadcast, for most American fans, a set of games over the internet. Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.

From risk to success

It’s been 35 years since the NFL took a bunch of games and put them on a new media platform.

“For years and years, the NFL has broadcast its games on television,” said Alex Riethmiller, vice president of communications for the league, “whether it’s [was] on CBS, NBC, Fox or ABC. But we made a change in 1987, putting our games on cable TV with a channel that was relatively young at the time, called ESPN.”

Riethmiller acknowledges that there was, at first, some upheaval and confusion and even lower ratings.

“If there was a risk in 1987,” he said, “by 2000 or 2005 or whatever, it [seemed] as a no-brainer we had games on ESPN and it was a huge hit. And ESPN has helped continue to build the popularity of the NFL.”

Everyone at the NFL, he says, feels exactly the same about moving online with Amazon.

When the league signed network deals last year to show its games, Amazon was included in the massive 11-year package worth more than $100 billion.

The NFL knows streaming is on the move.

Dancing with the stars premieres next week on Disney+, following its decades-long run on ABC; this week, the soap opera of more than 50 years days of our livesmoved from NBC to Peacock.

“Nielsen recently reported that for the very first time,” said Joe Adalian, who writes about streaming for Vulture, “even though streaming remains the way most people still watch television and still has the largest share overall hours, streaming over the summer has overtaken cable TV, in terms of hours and minutes watched.”

Will this growing success translate into professional football?

There is certainly a belief that streaming-aware Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X fans will embrace the new Thursday Night Football platform. Interestingly though, Adalian says an older fan demographic may be getting on board more readily than expected.

“Studies show that viewers over the age of 50 are the fastest growing segment of people streaming,” he said, “and are in many ways the largest or one of largest audience groups who watch streaming TV”.

“The pandemic really accelerated that. People were stuck [at] residence. They needed things to watch. They started gorging and they adapted.”

Yet a survey by consumer insights platform DISQO showed that just 12% of football fans are happy with the NFL’s move to streaming games only on Thursday nights. That said, the survey too found that half of fans still plan to watch TNF streaming.

A Thursday night petri dish

The NFL’s Riethmiller says it’s no coincidence the league moves to Thursdays.

Thursday Night Football is like a petri dish, Riethmiller said, “where we were experimenting and trying different ways. Since its debut in 2006, we’ve always used TNF as a way to try different ways of distribution.”

The NFL has been streaming games since 2015, but not as a primary viewing option. And it will continue, in Thursday night games, using some of the technology already in use. Such as X-Ray, which provides stats beyond yards and touchdowns, and dives into yards gained after contact for running backs and wide receivers and how long quarterbacks take to throw the ball.

There will be plenty of football knowledge in the announcer’s booth – veteran broadcaster Al Michaels will be calling games with longtime college analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

Small numbers at the start

Riethmiller knows that some fans, like our Julie, might not be willing to buy a streaming subscription to watch Thursday Night Football. They can just bypass Thursdays for all-day Sunday games on TV or Monday nights on cable.

“I don’t know if I would use the word ‘risk’,” Riethmiller said, “I think we anticipate the [viewership] the numbers you’ll see for Thursday Night Football, not just this week but for this year as a whole, are sure to be lower than what we got last year. Because again, it’s a new way to get the games and there’s probably an awareness there that needs to go north.”

And you also need good internet access. Which of course, says Adalian, isn’t always the case.

“There are definitely people in rural communities who may not have the best broadband,” he said, “and for them there will be a bit of a challenge.”

But Adalian says the NFL really doesn’t have to worry about a short-term dip in viewership, thanks to his 11-year contract.

“[The league] has plenty of time to get it right,” he said, “and Amazon has to pay for it.”

And as with ESPN in 1987, Riethmiller says the NFL believes the TNF/Amazon Prime “petri dish” will be cultivate success.

“I think we’re very confident that in the long run people will come back to this and of course say the NFL has put games on a streaming platform.”

The NFL is confident and ready.

The question to Julie and the others… are you?

Editor’s note: Amazon is one of NPR’s recent financial backers.

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