Soon after Fred Gaudelli took over as Thursday Night Football’s executive producer and was tasked with building a top-level broadcast from scratch, he had an idea for how to brand the show. But he wasn’t sure his new bosses at Amazon would sign off.
“I looked at their logo, I looked at the smile, and I said, ‘This is going to be perfect for [the] down and yard [graphic],’” Gaudelli said in an interview.
While Fox and CBS opt for more subtle arrows to show which direction the offense is headed, Gaudelli’s previous broadcast at NBC used a feather motif from the network’s peacock logo to give shape to the information. And now, Amazon’s grinning arrow seemed to be an even simpler fit—with a caveat: Would the $1.3 trillion enterprise let TNF fiddle with its globally recognized, decades-old emblem?
To do this right, Gaudelli would need to change the logo’s color to match each NFL offense, and even (*gasp*) flip its orientation when the ball changed hands. “If they didn’t [approve the request], I would have understood,” Gaudelli said. “But I think that they—you know, wisely—said, Yeah, no, let’s go for it.”
And so, when millions of Americans tune into Thursday Night Football this week, it won’t take them long to recognize that we’re in a new era of sports broadcasting.
It has been 28 years since the NFL added to its list of season-long, exclusive partners, and this season marks the first time the league has handed one of its premier packages to a digital streamer. Amazon will pay roughly $1 billion per year to prove that Prime is ready for prime time.
For the most part, Gaudelli hopes the experience will feel familiar. In fact, while he may have been pushing the envelope with the logo request, his new colleagues pushed plenty, too.
“My message from the beginning … was, Hey, before we can start breaking things and being different, we need to be great,” Gaudelli said. “You’re trying to make a tech company understand how live television works.”
Al Michaels will call the games alongside Kirk Herbstreit, two voices who offer an immediate sense of legitimacy and familiarity, even if hearing them together could be temporarily jarring for longtime football fans.
“We’re going to have some stumbles along the way,” Michaels said during a recent press conference, “But I think in short order, by just a few games into the season, you’re going to see a show that rivals any football telecast that I can ever think of.”
In 2018, Amazon hired veteran ESPN executive Marie Donoghue to oversee its global sports programming. At the time, it was airing the TNF games produced by Fox, as well as Premier League and U.S. Open matches in the U.K. But it clearly had its sights set on more.
“I started at Amazon four years ago, and they always used to ask me, ‘Could we produce an NFL broadcast? Will the NFL let us?,’” Donoghue said on the recent press call. “And I always said, ‘We’d just go get our own Fred Gaudelli type.’”
Gaudelli has won 24 Emmy Awards over three decades in broadcasting, earning a spot in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2020. He took over the TNF production as part of a partnership between Amazon and NBC, where he serves as the executive producer of NFL coverage.
Gaudelli, though, would be just one piece of a big puzzle. Among other executive hires, Amazon added NFL Network exec Mike Muriano as an executive producer. Former ESPN exec Amina Hussein was brought in to run talent. Betsy Riley joined from NBC Sports to serve as senior coordinating producer of live events.
“The challenging and rewarding part,” Amazon director for global live sports production Jared Stacy said, “is getting a bunch of people who are excited for an opportunity and to work inside of a startup at a launch of this magnitude.”
When they came on board, Stacy often had new hires meet with an Amazon veteran to learn about the company’s history—two-day shipping, Kindle, Echo, etc. “You really kind of get indoctrinated, or at least you get educated, on what’s made Amazon successful,” Gaudelli said, “the risk-taking and things of that nature.”
“But,” he added, “not everything is transferable. What works in retail may not work in TV production.” NFL fans, he explained, have a very specific expectation of the broadcast experience. “You better meet it, and hopefully exceed it,” Gaudelli said, “because if you don’t, you’re going to pay the price.”
Gaudelli is familiar with the type of backlash that awaits certain attempts at innovation. In 2018, NBC added a “green zone” to mark the distance needed for a first down, and Twitter did not respond kindly (the feature has seemingly been phased out). Other ideas, like Fox’s glowing puck or ESPN’s BoogerMobile, are forced to endure criticism even after they’re decommissioned. Of course some, from the yellow first down line to the Manningcast, have the potential to change the way fans watch football.
“We get challenged by our leadership to figure out what’s next and to take some swings,” Stacy said. For proof of that, he pointed to talent decisions. While Amazon went with known commodities in the booth, its pregame show is loaded with TV newbies such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Richard Sherman and Andrew Whitworth.
Little Caesars (Nasdaq: CZR) will be the presenting host of the pregame show, and fans will be able to order pizza using an on-screen QR code, receiving perks with their orders.
The experiments will continue after kickoff as well, in the form of multiple alternate broadcasts, starring the likes of YouTube stars Dude Perfect. “We have more to announce down the road,” Stacy said. “That comes out of: How can we grow the NFL fan base?”
Getting fans to find the stream Thursday will be a challenge, much less expanding the popularity of America’s biggest sport. However that’s clearly the goal not only for Amazon, but for the NFL, which took a chance of its own handing a primetime package to a streamer. “We believe … Amazon Prime is going to build an audience for the NFL,” commissioner Roger Goodell said this spring.
The group tasked with accomplishing that goal had its first talent seminar in Los Angeles earlier this summer, bringing the likes of Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, Michaels and Whitworth together for the first time. Talent talked, but so did product leads, who explained what “the customer journey” would look like on Thursday. There were lessons on Amazon’s history. “It was funny to see names that were on your whiteboard for a year turn into people at your dinner table,” Stacy said.
For much of August, Gaudelli’s new team also got to know each other inside SoFi Stadium’s parking lot.
A year ago, Stacy asked production unit provider Game Creek Video “to build pretty much the biggest, most technologically advanced mobile units in the country.” Given the time constraints, “That was a nerve wracking decision to have to make,” he said. “But they delivered.”
Stacy was supposed to see the truck for the first time on Aug. 5, 41 days before its regular season debut. However a bout with COVID-19 meant he didn’t step into it until days before its first live run, during a preseason game in Houston.
“No truck rolls out of a factory into a football stadium and does a show as complicated as Thursday Night Football,” Gaudelli said. “Never been done—ever.”
In addition to the Texans game, the crew worked two preseason games in Los Angeles, finding ways to manage the bugs and quirks that come with new units. “I never imagined I would park a truck in an NFL stadium for an entire month,” Gaudelli said. “That’s not cheap to do what we just did. Amazon was 100% behind it.”
Gaudelli figured 95% of the bugs had been worked out by last week. The production crew is still gelling. Michaels and Herbstreit’s chemistry will only get better. Amazon’s new team is hoping to impress in their debut Thursday, but also to improve as the season goes on.
As long as the arrow is pointed in the right direction, Gaudelli will be smiling.
(This story has been updated in the 20th paragraph to include information about Little Caesars’ sponsorship.)