It wasn’t perfect, but it was a win for streaming sports
It didn’t crash! That’s the most important thing you can say about the first Thursday Night Football game aired on Amazon Prime Video. Amazon didn’t crumble like HBO Max did during the House of The Dragon premiere. It didn’t crash like CBS All Access during the 2021 Super Bowl. It even streamed better than DirecTV did five days ago. There were some reports of blocky resolution and buffering, but in general, Amazon hung in there, and it aired a football game.
Watching the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers play, I got the distinct sense that “airing a football game” was Amazon’s one and only goal for the evening. There was nothing particularly innovative or new in the broadcast, from the choice of cast to the style of programming. But that was surely by design: even legendary commentator Al Michaels, hired by Amazon to call these games, said he wasn’t “going to reinvent the wheel. None of us are.”
This was the first game in its decade-long deal with the NFL, for which Amazon is paying about $1 billion a year for exclusive rights. Amazon has streamed NFL games in the past, but its new package is both more expensive and much higher stakes than the last-choice games it had before. And ultimately, how impressive Amazon’s accomplishment is depends on how many people actually watched; Amazon was telling advertisers to expect 12.5 million viewers, which would make it bigger than House of the Dragon, but we won’t know the real numbers for a bit. Regardless, how Amazon does will have a lot to do with how quickly sports turn to streaming — so if you’re rooting for the death of pricey cable bundles, you were rooting for Amazon to pull it off. And it did.
In the hour of coverage leading up to the game, there was surprisingly little fanfare or Amazon rah-rahing. A few seconds into the broadcast, pregame show host Charissa Thompson did say “welcome to the long-awaited debut of Thursday Night Football on Prime Video,” but she was only barely audible from the center of a Chiefs crowd. In general, the whole thing felt remarkably like… a football game.
There were a few signs of who was running the show, though: the Prime logo in the top-right corner; the players miming the swoopy-arrow logo in promotional segments; a section of the pregame show sponsored by Audible; the prompt to ask Alexa who led the league in passing yards; the “Prime Stories” bit showing the most important storylines heading into the game.
And, best of all, about 45 minutes into the broadcast, we had our first sighting of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who was laughing on the sideline in a green polo. I noticed him at least once more during the game, too. I sincerely hope there’s a contractually obligated number of Bezos shots per game. And I hope that number is in the hundreds.
The most noticeably Amazonian thing, though, was the ads. A shockingly high percentage of the ads aired during the game were for Amazon’s own products and content — regular reminders that Lord of The Rings: The Rings of Power is a show on Prime Video that Amazon would very much like you to watch, along with plugs for seemingly every other show and movie on the service.
It’s possible that Amazon had spare ad inventory to fill with its own stuff, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if the company is happy to forego ad revenue to help the broadcast serve as one big advertisement for its services. Amazon keeps saying it views its NFL investment as a long game, one that could ultimately be much bigger than ad revenue. It clearly wants Prime to grow more than it needs a few more of T-Mobile and Chipotle’s dollars.
Live streaming in general is much more volatile than cable: how the feed looks to you depends on your Wi-Fi speeds, your streaming device, and even which ISP you use. Making it work for everyone will be Amazon’s greatest challenge, and the internet had its share of complaints, but it worked seamlessly for me.
The broadcast came through my Fire TV Stick in 1080p, because the dream of 4K sports is apparently still just a dream. It did have Dolby Digital Plus audio, though through my (admittedly crappy) TV speakers, it sounded like Amazon has some mixing work to do. I could sometimes hear the players clearly but not the crowd, so it occasionally felt like the game was being played in front of a crowd of about 16 people.
A few times during the game, I flipped over to the alternate broadcast. Alternate broadcasts are becoming a big part of the future of sports. It’s a great idea: instead of listening to whatever doofus the network picked to call the game, you can choose to watch with the commentators of your choice.
Amazon’s most notable alternate broadcast featured Dude Perfect, the group of trick-shot athletes who have become internet sensations. “This will be the longest continuous piece of Dude Perfect video in the history of ever,” Dude Perfect’s Tyler Toney said early on, welcoming the audience to the group’s first live broadcast ever. They then began to chat about what they were planning for the game, the challenges they were going to do, something about breaking a world record… and then they were immediately cut off by the end of the pregame show and an ad break.
Prime Video also offered the game with a broadcast in Spanish, which was nice, along with a broadcast paired with “Prime Vision,” an always-on view of Amazon’s Next Gen Stats. (The thing you mostly learn watching a broadcast like this is that Amazon likes to brand everything in sight, and most of the names sound too much alike.) The Dude Perfect broadcast was more like hanging out on the couch with your friends while the game plays on silent in the background. It’s fun! But it’s not really a football show.
I also watched some of the game with Amazon’s X-Ray menu active. The feature showed real-time stats, play-by-play info, key replays, and a surprisingly handy list of bios for every player on either team. It was all the stuff you’d Google or pick up your phone for right there on the screen. It’s super handy.
Ultimately, though, I gave up on all the alternate broadcasts pretty fast and returned to legendary broadcaster Al Michaels. On the default in-game broadcast, Amazon didn’t take many risks. None, in fact. Its on-screen bug with the scores and time was a little busy for my taste, but that was as wild as Amazon got. The first-down line was there all game. The feed flipped between the crowd, the sidelines, the players, the field, the replays, everything, just as you’d expect.
Honestly, I expected much more Amazon during the game. I thought I’d be able to Click Here To Buy This Jersey and order everything I saw in a commercial. I half figured Alexa would be a sideline reporter, asking the coaches inane questions about how they motivate their guys. Where’s the Ring doorbell camera snapping security footage from the top corner? Why no pop-up telling me to order now and my Whole Foods delivery will be here at halftime? Amazon had a lot of deals surrounding the game, but none of it showed up in the broadcast. To be clear, thank goodness for that: I don’t want any of those things, and they all would have made the experience worse. But a lot of other companies would have done it, and I’m glad Amazon didn’t.
Amazon has a lot of football left to air — 14 more games this year and nine more years’ worth after that. I suspect we’ll start to see Amazon experiment more, both with how to air the game itself and how to turn all of that investment into revenue. But for now, Amazon streamed a football game. Good start.