Amazon’s Prime Video is one of the lions of the streaming business, with a shelf of awards, a multibillion-dollar advertising operation and reach to 80 million U.S. households to show for its efforts.
This Thursday, however, will mark perhaps the biggest milestone yet in Prime Video’s 15-year run, as it will deliver an exclusive stream of an NFL game for the first time. The contest between the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers is a preseason affair, so the stakes for the teams and fans are not exactly high. But a lot of eyes will be on the platform in its final public dress rehearsal before officially kicking off its Thursday Night Football broadcasts (the tech giant’s preferred term) on September 15. That regular-season matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs will be the first of 15 a year on Prime over the next 11 years. Amazon is understood to have paid $1 billion per season for the rights.
Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit will call the games, and Amazon has hired other established talent both in front of and behind the camera. For several years, Prime Video simulcast games that were produced by other broadcasters (in last year’s case, both Fox and NFL Network). Now, the streaming giant stands alone in delivering the biggest test yet — of technology, consumer marketing and product design — in sports streaming.
Deadline recently was offered a walk-through of the new viewing experience, and Amazon staffers highlighted a range of special features that viewers can expect. Some have been mentioned for months, while others are coming in a bit more under the radar. Among them are alternate broadcasts, unlimited DVR recording, “rapid recaps” of key moments to help latecomers catch up and a layer of statistics and information delivered onscreen via the same “X-Ray” technology used for movies and series on Prime. Of course, for all the bells and whistles, the design aims to enable “lean-back” viewing at every turn as tens of millions of fans adjust to a new way of tuning in. In addition to Prime apps, the live game video will be hosted at the top of the home page of Amazon.com, one of the most-visited sites on the internet.
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“We heard from fans that football is a ritual for them,” Kevin Couch, senior manager of product management for Prime Video Sports, said in an interview. “This is almost religious for a lot of these fans. We’re here to provide a broadcast that is in line with what they expect — it’s high-quality, it meets what they want. All these features are there, but they fade away if they don’t want them.”
Alternate broadcast feeds are a component that Amazon has explored for a while now, taking advantage of its young-skewing, gaming-oriented platform Twitch. Dude Perfect, the sports entertainment collective that is a top YouTube creator, will handle one of the alternate broadcasts, giving Amazon a presence in the arena popularized by Peyton and Eli Manning on ESPN’s “Manningcasts” of Monday Night Football. Toggling between feeds on Prime will be seamless, and the company plans to explore an unlimited number of new feeds, unconstrained by the limits of traditional TV.
A DVR-like feature will allow full-season recording at the touch of a button, though technically the games will reside in the cloud, so the company mainly is opening up access to subscribers. Given the digital environment and lack of a schedule grid, there will be no worries about having to set recordings of the late news and other shows on the program grid manually, as is sports fans’ traditional lot.
Some of the statistics offered through X-Ray and Amazon Web Services’ “Next Gen Stats” will not be available on all distribution platforms at launch, but the company says they will kick in during the coming weeks. The AWS dashboard will pull from devices attached to players’ uniforms, so viewers can see not only who scored on a touchdown run but how fast they were going.
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Amazon’s takeover of Thursday nights is just one of several significant changes to the pro football media landscape heading into the season. With Michaels, the dean of NFL broadcasters, heading to Prime Video after 18 seasons calling games for NBC, Mike Tirico has stepped into the top play-by-play spot with Sunday Night Football. Fox’s 20-year tandem of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman moved to ESPN’s Monday Night Football, with Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen replacing them at Fox. CBS, whose decision to reward color analyst Tony Romo with a lucrative contract in 2020 set off a flurry of talent deals at rapidly escalating salaries, enters the season with perhaps the least flux in the booth of any network airing the league.
Under decade-long rights renewals completed in 2021, every media partner will be looking to integrate more and more streaming into the overall mix, with streaming exclusives planned down the line on ESPN+, Paramount+ and Peacock. Still, the idea of a weekly timeslot only being available online — particularly given the large number of “out of home” sites like bars and restaurants looking to offer games — has prompted a lot of scrutiny around how fans will be guided from linear to streaming every Thursday.
A related source of anxiety, especially given the large and growing population of gamblers who legally wager on games, is “latency,” that bugaboo of the streamers that results in a delayed signal reaching viewers. At the Prime Video NewFronts presentation in May, the company highlighted its efforts to create “ultra-low-latency” for live events and other streams. In 2020, Amazon acquired a specialist in the field, Sye Technology, and expects its upcoming streams to have a lag time that is in the same range as linear TV (which, for regulatory and other reasons, operates on a seven-second delay.)
“We’ve done a ton of work in that area,” Couch said. “We’ve spent a lot of work over the last two years implementing this across device types.”
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Amazon is not the only tech company looking to conquer the NFL and other live sports. Apple is seen as a potential front-runner to land digital rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, with an announcement expected this fall. And Netflix, after long eschewing sports, made a bid for Formula 1 races as a companion to its popular Drive to Survive unscripted series about the racing circuit. As the global streaming leader gets ready to launch an ad-supported tier in 2023, sports undoubtedly will be part of its strategy to attract and retain subscribers.
“These new platforms,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told CNBC last month during a visit to the Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, “give us an ability to innovate beyond where we are today, and make the experience for consumers so much better.”
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