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Steve McCaskill | Why Amazon’s Thursday Night Football debut was a sports streaming milestone

SportsPro's technology editor offers his thoughts on Amazon's debut as the exclusive broadcaster of the NFL's Thursday night fixture.

22 September 2022 Steve McCaskill


There have been many occasions when the sports industry has been guilty of hyperbole. But to suggest one of the biggest milestones in the streaming revolution took place last Thursday isn’t one of them.

The clash between the NFL’s San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs was the first game of Amazon’s 11-year, US$1 billion-a-season deal for the exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football (TNF). It’s the first time that the most valuable sports league in the world in the biggest sports market in the world has taken a whole package of matches over-the-top (OTT). 

In the build up to kick-off, there was much speculation about whether the infrastructure required to support millions of concurrent viewers would hold up, what the in-game presentation would look like, and whether everyone’s parents would be able to find a way to watch it.

In the end, everything went as well as could be expected.

If we are to suggest that Amazon’s coverage will change the way the NFL is broadcast forever, we don’t mean in terms of how it is presented. The company might have been starting from scratch, but it was leaving nothing to chance.

It enlisted the support of NBC veterans Fred Gaudelli and Pierre Moossa to produce its coverage and hired legendary commentators Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit to give it immediate legitimacy.

There was some innovation with a Dude Perfect simulcast, X-Ray statistics, some flashy camera angles and Alexa integration, but the focus was clearly on slick presentation and getting the basics right.

Much like its Premier League coverage in the UK, Amazon didn’t want to rock the boat and leave itself exposed to criticism. But of course, like all streaming services, Amazon Prime is at the mercy of the public internet and many viewers complained about latency and poor picture quality.

Even for big tech, live video streaming is a very complex thing to get right and is one of the inevitable risks for the NFL in taking TNF away from linear television. But it’s also worth pointing out that it isn’t just streaming that can be subject to outages – Sunday Ticket subscribers on the DirecTV satellite service are to be refunded after connection issues this past weekend too.

The issues didn’t dampen the critical response to Amazon’s debut. The reviews so far have been positive – possibly because the presentation looked like what you’d expect from an established broadcaster like NBC, CBS, or ESPN – and Amazon will be pleased with the 13 million-strong audience. 

But the real metric to consider isn’t viewership – it’s Prime subscriptions. Virtually everything Amazon does – with the exception of its cloud services business – is designed to drive online retail sales and the company’s whole sports broadcasting strategy is focused on acquiring more Prime sign-ups.

Prime subscribers don’t just pay a monthly fee, they also buy more from Amazon. An exclusive game each week in the lead up to Christmas should mean the annual US$1 billion rights fee is money well spent. The initial results are promising, with Amazon claiming internally that it secured more sign-ups over a three-hour period than any other day in the company’s history.

While the NFL doesn’t need to worry about broadcast deals for more than a decade – its contracts from 2023 to 2033 are worth US$110 billion – it will be rooting for Amazon to make a success of TNF and further normalise the idea of streaming live sports.

ESPN will show its first streaming-only matchup later this year, the NFL has launched its own mobile-focused OTT service, and it’s almost certain that Sunday Ticket will end up in the hands of one of Amazon, Apple or Disney from next season. 

Major League Baseball (MLB) might have kickstarted the revolution back in 2002, but two decades on and the NFL might be the one to make it a reality.

Solving the issue of fragmentation with Just Watch

One of the biggest challenges with the shift to OTT is fragmentation. The absence of an electronic programming guide (EPG) can make it difficult to find out exactly which platform the match is on – something that is even more troublesome when rights holders agree deals with multiple broadcasters.

Fragmentation isn’t a problem that affects just sport. While viewers can be confident that a Netflix original will be available on that platform in perpetuity, other content is subject to rights deals and can move from one service to another (one day I will finally finish Downton Abbey, I swear).

And even if you have a subscription to all the major platforms, it can take time moving between different applications to find out which show is on which service.

Just Watch tracks which TV shows and movies are available on which streaming platform, allowing users to find out where everything is with a single search. Now Just Watch is applying this model to sport – at least in beta for now.

Users in the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain can see which soccer, American football, tennis, Formula One and baseball events are on which streaming platforms. The service is a bit bare bones for now and not all the information is available, but eventually Just Watch will offer more leagues and competitions, as well as personalisation options and device notifications.

Fans won’t miss a moment and broadcasters can reach a wider audience. A win-win situation.

ESPN is embracing user-generated content with its new Creator Network

Why ESPN is embracing user-generated content

Most rights holders and broadcasters have long embraced social media in their quest to attract that elusive Gen Z demographic. Platforms like TikTok and Instagram are viewed as a way of reaching younger fans, driving engagement with new content formats, and amplifying impact by going viral.

User-generated content (UGC) is an increasingly important part of this equation. The value of UGC is obvious in that it’s organic, appears authentic, and demonstrates clear engagement. However, some rights holders have been a little heavy handed with copyright claims when UGC uses their IP.

Others, such as the International Basketball Federation (Fiba), have embraced UGC wholeheartedly by making assets available to a select group of creators. Now, the biggest name in sports broadcasting is following suit with the ESPN Creator Network.

ESPN will select ten creators who will receive access to its catalogue of sports properties along with additional creative and financial resources to create content for their respective followers. Inevitably, the initial focus is on TikTok and participants will have creative control.

The self-proclaimed ‘Worldwide Leader in Sports’ could be on to something.


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