At first glance, the shift of the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package from the familiar trappings of linear TV to the wilds of Amazon Prime Video has proven to be a palpable, if modest, success. Through the first three weeks of the new streaming pact, the deliveries largely have met advertisers’ expectations, and with an average draw of 13 million viewers, the Sept. 15 Chargers-Chiefs opener now ranks as the 20th most-watched NFL game of the season.
Not too shabby. But take a deeper dive beyond the overall audience figures, and a far more gripping story begins to emerge, one that provides an encouraging glimpse into the league’s future. Because while TV viewership trends suggest that younger fans have largely rejected the old-fashioned American ritual of spending more than three hours in the company of a live football game, the TNF demographic data effectively dispels that notion.
Since the new-look TNF got underway last month, Amazon’s ability to capture an outsized share of the elusive 18-34 demo has been nothing short of revelatory. While only one TNF outing thus far has crashed the NFL’s most-watched list, Amazon can lay claim to three of the top 10 highest-rated games among the young-adults set. With an average draw of 2.98 million adults 18-49, the Chargers-Chiefs brawl now stands as the season’s sixth-biggest supplier of that allegedly unreachable cohort, and while the raw number is impressive enough on its own, the ratio of younger to older viewers is nothing short of astonishing.
Given an average draw of just over 13 million impressions—a figure that includes 1.16 million people who tuned in via their local affiliates in the Los Angeles and Kansas City markets and about the same number of fans who watched the game in an out-of-home setting—Amazon’s 18-34 deliveries accounted for 22.8% of its total audience base. The streamer saw nearly identical results with its next two TNF games, as the 18-34 crowd made up 24.8% of the Steelers-Browns turnout on Sept. 22 and contributed 23.5% of the overall impressions for Dolphins-Bengals the following week.
All told, 23.7% of Amazon’s TNF deliveries came courtesy of adults between the ages of 18 and 34. These are wildly disproportionate results; by way of comparison, that same demo currently accounts for 14.2% of the NFL’s total TV impressions—which is in itself an enviable turnout, given the medium’s antediluvian base. Since the new broadcast season began last month, the 18-34 crowd has been a virtual no-show, making up just 4.4% of the Thursday primetime audience across the Big Four networks.
Amazon’s infusion of younger blood to Thursday nights has had a revitalizing effect on TNF, with the median age of the audience for the first three games coming in at a relatively dewy 46 years. Per Nielsen, last season’s TNF posted a median age of 54 years, which marks the extreme upper limit of TV’s oldest transactional demo (adults 25-54). Last season, Thursday’s primetime lineup attracted its most moth-eaten audience ever, as the night’s slate of dramas and comedies generated a median age of 63 years. (At the risk of trafficking in hyperbole, when 85% of the consumers who watch a TV show have aged out of the guaranteed demo, your business model is broken beyond repair.)
As much as the NFL is keeping the lights on for its media partners, the mummification of the linear TV audience has taken some of the luster out of the league’s unmatched ratings success. While the deliveries continue to fly in the face of plunging TV usage levels—on Sunday afternoon, CBS notched its most-watched Week 4 window since 1998, bringing its two-game national NFL broadcast average to 26 million viewers—many players in the advertising space fear that what amounts to a generational disinterest in traditional TV may have a chilling effect on the sports-media juggernaut. To put it in the language of the actuarial tables, many of the people who currently make up the bulk of the linear TV audience will be taking the Big Dirt Nap in 10 to 15 years, and there aren’t a whole lot of replacements lining up to take their place on the couch.
That is why the early Amazon numbers should be interpreted as a sign of life, of endurance in the face of what seems for all the world like impending ruin. Again, the NFL is best suited to ride out the coming media shakeout—of the 24.6 million people who tuned in to CBS’s Patriots-Packers broadcast last Sunday, 13.2% were adults 18-34—but the composition of Amazon’s streaming audience is further evidence that younger Americans are seeking out, and sticking with, the NFL. In the case of the $11 billion TNF deal, it’s simply a matter of fans converging upon one of their native media environments in order to engage with the sport of sports.
Meanwhile, as media buyers start to catch the scent of Amazon’s uncanny performance metrics, and word begins circulating about the composition of the streamer’s weekly NFL audience, advertisers are clamoring for TNF inventory. Millions of consumers in the most-coveted sales demo are converging on a Thursday night NFL package that was long considered a TV albatross, and as long as that dynamic holds sway, marketers will pay top dollar to sling their commercials at them.
Now all Amazon has to do is radically reduce their in-house promotional load so that it’s more in line with the ratio of paid ads to tune-in spots that characterizes network TV. If the streamer can see its way clear to free up some of the in-game inventory that’s currently devoted to hyping its Lord of the Rings show and that chatty electronic gizmo that spies on its users, there are plenty of insurance companies, gambling sites and movie studios who’ll fill up the space with their own calls to action. Better to get in before you get priced out; given the unparalleled audience composition, Amazon’s average unit costs (between $475,000 and $525,000 per 30-second spot) are already on the rise.