In spiriting away the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package from the familiar trappings of linear TV, Amazon Prime Video has relieved the broadcast airwaves of one of the country’s top-rated sports properties. By doing so, the streaming service has inaugurated a new way for advertisers to think about their media buys, one that values the immediacy and smarts of the digital realm over the blunt-force blandishments of sheer reach.
Amazon’s data-rich NFL takeover promises to accentuate the league’s already considerable charms, and in the run-up to the inaugural season of the look-Ma-no-TV era of TNF, marketers have been lining up to secure their in-game positions. In exchange for joining Amazon on its journey, the first-timers are getting what amounts to one hell of a deal.
According to media buyers with skin in the TNF game, Amazon has made a sober assessment of the marketplace, dialing back Fox’s year-ago performance guarantees while offering rates that are well below what the broadcast incumbents are charging for their own nationally distributed NFL productions. Whereas Fox in its final season of TNF averaged 13.2 million viewers per game—when NFL Network’s simulcasts were folded into the mix, the Thursday night package scared up a weekly draw of 16.2 million viewers—Amazon is aiming a bit lower. According to media buyers, Amazon has set its raw performance target at some 12.6 million streamers per game, which works out to a 22% drop versus last year’s combined deliveries.
In keeping with the adjusted projections, Amazon also is doing its part to combat sticker shock. While establishing a definitive unit cost is tricky—rate cards are about as antiquated as rabbit ears, and the streamer is writing deals that contain client-specific inducements that make for all sorts of apples-to-bocce-balls comparisons with TV—the range we’ve been hearing from buyers is between $475,000 and $525,000 per 30-second spot. That’s a bargain any way you slice the pallino, as Fox in last year’s upfront sold in-game TNF units for around $650,000.
This is probably where all comparisons with TV should peter out, but human nature being what it is, the Amazon vs. Fox chatter will likely persist throughout the season. Our brains are designed to seize on similarities between fairly disparate things and just run with them; the same tortured drive to understand the world through analogy is what made people in the audience of the 1903 film The Great Train Robbery flee from the theater for fear of being squashed by the cinematic representation of an oncoming locomotive. (People were pretty dumb back then, which didn’t help matters.)
Since we’re all hard-wired to point at objects and think, “that thing is [un]like this thing,” it’s perhaps for the best if we were to touch down on a few convergences—although, again, much of what’s interesting about Amazon’s NFL play has to do with where the streamer/retailer parts ways with the legacy TV model. In terms of gut-level similarities, Amazon’s reach puts it in league with the most-distributed cable networks.
Amazon tallied up some 80 million active Prime Video households in 2021, which is in the same zip code as the 78.7 million viewers who subscribed to ESPN as of this spring, and well ahead of NFL Network’s 56.6 million subs. (The broadcast networks are in about 95 million homes.) As such, the platform itself does not put Amazon at a disadvantage on the viewer-acquisition front; if anything, the more immediate challenge is to entice older viewers away from the tube and onto the Internets.
Speaking of altering entrenched behaviors, the scramble for a mass audience is where the divergence between Amazon and its TV forebears becomes all but impossible to overlook. At the risk of indulging in the meanest form of gaucherie, Amazon’s $1.45 trillion market cap means that it doesn’t have to Oliver Twist its way into the marketplace, gruel bowl at the ready. While hardly insubstantial, the $11 billion Amazon is paying for the right to stream live NFL games is a manageable expense given the nine zeroes tacked to the business end of the company’s valuation. Even if Amazon struggles to find an audience in the early going, and has to spread out a thick layer of insulating make-goods, the impact on the balance sheet will look like a rounding error.
Amazon can afford to embrace the sort of laissez-faire financial strategy championed by Ty Webb (“Here’s an uncashed check for $70,000”), and that same enviable position allows it to take the long view on the road to world domination. Advertisers are being given an opportunity to place their messaging in what is arguably the world’s most invaluable media environment, only now the NFL is being linked to a digital souk where purchases can be made at the very moment of inspiration. Without getting too far into the Madison Avenue happy talk, a TNF buy aligns the advertiser with must-see, um, “TV,” and with all the insights and first-party consumer data that Amazon can bring to bear on primetime football it effectively stuffs the metaphorical marketing funnel from the spout to the brim.
For all the gee-whizzery of what Amazon hopes to provide with its new-look TNF, much of the presentation will remain of a piece with what fans have come to expect from the NFL on linear TV. Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit—you may have heard of these guys—will be calling the action, and studio shows will feature the likes of Richard Sherman and Tony Gonzalez. The games will also be measured by Nielsen, which means advertisers will be furnished with the same fundamental ratings information that has served as TV’s transactional currency for decades.
Last year, five TNF games featured among the top 100 most-watched broadcasts, including a Christmas Day Browns-Packers outing that delivered 28.6 million viewers on Fox. That marked the NFL’s second-biggest regular-season game of 2021, trailing only CBS’ coverage of the Thanksgiving Raiders-Cowboys thriller (40.8 million). And while no one expects Amazon to come within a country mile of the Yuletide turnout, reach represents only a fraction of what TNF can offer advertisers.
As the Sept. 15 Chargers-Chiefs opener draws near, sales have been brisk, leading one buyer to suggest that anyone looking to get in on the ground floor of the Amazon-TNF partnership had better shake a leg. While the budget-friendly rates won’t last, those who take a chance with Amazon in the early going will be uniquely well-positioned to reap the benefits of a partnership down the road, when the concept has proven itself out and the unit cost has begun approaching broadcast TV levels.
“We’re not looking at [TNF] as a replacement for TV,” said one national TV buyer. “It’s more a matter of enhancing our existing NFL TV buys with an opportunity to learn more about consumers and how they engage with the things they watch. It’s like TV on steroids, only the HGH makes you smarter rather than just bigger and meaner and faster.”