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Amazon has no second season syndrome fear with Thursday Night Football

Amazon's debut campaign as an exclusive NFL broadcaster was a hit. SportsPro looks at how season two will continue to redefine how streaming can change sports broadcasting.

31 Aug 2023 Steve McCaskill

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The degree of enthusiasm for streaming within the sports industry would lead most to believe it was a priority for any rights holder. The conventional wisdom is that OTT platforms drive up the value of broadcast deals, deepen engagement with fans, and reach new audiences.

But while Major League Soccer (MLS) was more than happy to sell it’s entire inventory to Apple, the Pac-12 effectively disbanded rather than accept a reported all-streaming offer from the same company. Others have limited their streaming forays to experimentation with varying degrees of success, including the National Football League (NFL), which awarded the rights to Thursday Night Football (TNF) to Amazon in 2021 – the first time a whole package of matches was sold to a streamer.

With coverage across all four major US networks and broadcast deals worth more than US$100 billion over ten years, the NFL can afford to experiment more than most. And huge revenues mean Amazon will think nothing of spending US$1 billion a year on sports rights to drive Prime subscriptions.

Yet even taking into account the huge influence of the NFL and the vast reach of Amazon, there wasn’t a completely universal expectation of success. Some felt the package simply wasn’t attractive enough for a conventional broadcaster in a saturated market and that further fragmentation would affect viewing figures.

It’s fair to say, however, that the debut season was a success. TNF delivered solid ratings, the youngest median age of any NFL broadcast package since 2013, and won a Sports Emmy. Amazon transformed TNF from something that bounced around various networks on a non-exclusive basis at a cut price into a fundamental part of the NFL schedule and a new major source of income for the league.

For its sophomore year, Amazon plans to further differentiate its broadcasts by making the most of its technology resources and implementing further commercial innovations that demonstrate what the future of sports streaming can look like.

Having debuted the artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled ‘Prime Vision’ simulcast, which overlaid data-driven graphics across a camera view that showed every player on the pitch, in season one, the production team has worked with Amazon’s internal AI experts to discuss up to 20 potential new features.

These include a ‘third down’ line which shows viewers how many yards need to be gained before its algorithm would recommend running the ball rather than kicking on fourth down, and a neutral network-powered prediction of when the defence is likely to blitz the quarterback.

Amazon received plenty of goodwill from advertisers last year and has been rewarded with strong demand this time round, a situation partly fuelled by the Hollywood writer’s strike and more flexible offerings. There’s also the prospect of dynamic and targeted advertising that linear broadcasters cannot offer.

While increasing viewing figures and advertising revenues will improve the economics of the deal, Amazon’s chief measurement of success will continue to be Prime sign-ups. And to date, it has been happy with the results – looking at expanding into more sports. Meanwhile, the NFL now appears to be sold on streaming with exclusive matchups heading to ESPN+ and Peacock in 2023, while Sunday Ticket is now on YouTube TV.

It’s been a win-win all round, and Amazon has also secured an exclusive matchup on Black Friday – a perfect time to test out dynamic advertising on the busiest shopping day of the year in the US.

College football enjoys Dublin visit but faces blackout in UK and Ireland

Thousands of college football fans descended upon Dublin this past weekend to watch the season-opening ‘College Football Classic’. Notre Dame defeated Navy 42-3 in a one-sided contest, much to the delight of many within the Aviva Stadium given the school’s Irish connections.

Despite being one of the most successful football teams in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) history, Notre Dame aren’t affiliated with a conference and sells their own media rights. Since 1991, these have been held by NBC and means that uniquely within American sport, all of Notre Dame’s games are available on national television.

Sky Sports, which shares a parent company with NBC in Comcast, has the rights in the UK and Ireland. But unless something changes dramatically, Notre Dame football will be the only NCAA action on British and Irish screens this season.

Notre Dame’s marching band also made the trip across the Atlantic (Image credit: Getty Images)

Although a niche proposition, college football has a long televised tradition in the British Isles. The embryonic Channel Four showed highlights of a Rose Bowl game in the UK in the early 1980s, while NASN, ESPN America and BT Sport have held the rights. More recently, viewers have been able to watch every single NCAA matchup via the ESPN Player DTC platform.

However, the rebranded TNT Sports will not show any ESPN programming or live NCAA football moving forward and ESPN Player has shut down.

“ESPN Player closed on 18th August,” an ESPN spokesperson told SportsPro. “We have notified all of our customers with information regarding their account and we thank them for their loyal support since launch. We will continue to make ESPN content available to fans across EMEA through our wholly-owned linear channels and multi-sport websites and mobile apps. Additionally, ESPN distributes numerous hours of live sports across the region through our affiliate partners.”

ESPN remains the global rights owner to NCAA football and SportsPro understands it is seeking a solution. But ahead of the opening weekend of the season, the sport faces a near blackout in the UK and Ireland – an unthinkable prospect for a highly engaged audience and an incredible anachronism in an era where virtually every single major sporting event can be viewed legally in virtually any country. It’s even more absurd when you consider the influence that college football has on US sports broadcasting.

Perhaps DAZN, which has secured the rights to NCAA football in Germany, could build on its recent distribution deal with the NFL for Game Pass International and create an all-in-one destination for American football fans in the UK? If not, Notre Dame could be about to get a lot more British fans.

Tennis stars call fault on late night Grand Slams

Wimbledon used to be famous for its rain delays and cancellations. Now with roofs over centre court and court one, the action can continue not just through inclement weather, but into the night thanks to integrated floodlights.

While the Championships have no formal evening sessions like the other three Grand Slams, night matches have been popular with broadcasters, including the BBC, given primetime tennis will attract bigger audiences. While the AELTC maintains Wimbledon is a predominantly outdoor tournament, play now starts later than usual on the showcourts and there are longer gaps between matches – making it more likely that play will continue past sunset. A night session has effectively been created by the backdoor.

The issue is that local authorities have imposed a hard 11pm curfew on Wimbledon, meaning the final match has to be suspended before completion – something which has frustrated several players. This includes Andy Murray, who this week revealed that he had requested not to be in the final game of the day to avoid such an eventuality.

Andy Murray serves under the roof at Wimbledon (Image credit: Getty Images)

All three other Grand Slams have formal night sessions to maximise television audiences and players have also been more vocal about the late finishes at the US Open, which started this week and where matches can conclude in the early hours of the morning.

Finding a balance between sporting integrity and commercial revenue is a task that has occupied the minds of many since the invention of professional sport. But night tennis is here to stay. Higher television ratings mean more lucrative broadcast deals, more prize money, and greater exposure for tournament and player sponsors.

Perhaps the answer for Wimbledon is an earlier start and a later curfew?

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