Amazon will spend $1 billion per year on NFL’s Thursday Night Football

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 22: New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton desperately throws an incomplete pass as Houston Texans Justin Reid tries to make the sack during fourth quarter NFL action.
Enlarge / HOUSTON, TX – NOVEMBER 22: New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton desperately throws an incomplete pass as Houston Texans Justin Reid tries to make the sack during fourth quarter NFL action.
Getty Images / Boston Globe

The NFL wrapped up its broadcast contract negotiations for the next eleven years, and a big winner was Amazon, which scored exclusive national rights to Thursday Night Football (TNF). Going forward, the NFL’s weekly Thursday games will be exclusive to Amazon Prime Video, a big change for a package that was previously on terrestrial television or cable.

The deal runs from 2023 to 2033 and, according to a report from CNBC, will see Amazon pay $1 billion per year for the TNF package. Thursday Night Football is the NFL’s newest and cheapest TV package, but the deal lets Amazon creep closer to parity with the NFL’s other licensees, mainstream TV networks like Fox Sports, ABC/ESPN (Disney), CBS (Viacom), and NBC (Comcast). CNBC’s report has the other four channels paying upward of $2 billion per year each, and unlike Amazon, the TV networks get to take turns airing the Super Bowl.

The NFL’s new deal contains streaming provisions for the other providers, too. Each network can now simulcast their games on their streaming service, and some deals scored one or two streaming-exclusive games. Disney’s ABC and ESPN games are also allowed on ESPN+, and ESPN+ will get one exclusive game per season, the London “International Series” game. NBC games can also appear on the streaming service Peacock, and Peacock is getting “an exclusive feed of a select number of NFL games.” CBS can stream games on Paramount+. Fox Sports, which wasn’t part of Disney’s acquisition of Fox, apparently has a streaming service called “Tubi,” which can now simulcast the Fox games.

Amazon’s slow creep into the NFL ecosystem

Amazon has been simulcasting TNF games since 2017, including one exclusive game last season. Looking back, the games served as a tryout process for Amazon, which has apparently proved to the NFL that it can handle streaming a full slate of games. The simulated TNF games were all produced by Fox’s broadcast crew and aired on the Fox network, so Amazon just carried Fox’s content over its Internet airwaves. Now with exclusive rights, Amazon will have to ramp up its own NFL production crew full of camera operators, commentators, a graphics package, and everything else it takes to make an NFL game happen. Amazon has a few years to figure this out.

Amazon’s simulcasted games ended up on Amazon Prime Video and Twitch, both of which had some interesting features. On Prime Video, Amazon offered alternate commentary options that you could switch between via the app settings. Besides the default Fox crew, for various games, Amazon offered options for the NFL’s first female broadcasting duo, commentary aimed at UK fans, and scouting-focused commentary. Over on Twitch, watching an NFL game with Twitch chat was certainly a unique experience, and for Amazon’s one exclusive game, it hosted a more casual stream of the game with ex-NFL players.

There were some downsides to streaming a football game on Amazon last season, namely the lack of DVR-style controls that many fans have grown accustomed to. You couldn’t pause the stream, record it, do your own instant replay, slow-motion a reply, or skip past a commercial if you were behind a bit. Fans also suddenly found themselves needing to get an Amazon game on their TV, which meant needing some kind of streaming device. This last part won’t matter much for local fans, since, like the cable-only NFL games, local TV stations will still get to carry your home team’s games over the free airwaves.

Live sports programming is one of the few features left of terrestrial TV that keeps some people from cutting the cord, so what happens to the NFL games is a big deal for the streaming wars. The next big collision of the NFL and the Internet is what happens to the NFL Sunday Ticket contract, which is currently with DirectTV. Sunday Ticket is the NFL’s big-money package, offering every single out-of-market Sunday afternoon game from across the league for about $300 per year on top of your normal DirectTV package. The Sunday Ticket contract expires at the end of the 2022 season, and DirectTV, which was just spun-off by AT&T, does not seem like it’s in a financial situation to re-up with the NFL. There’s a good chance a streaming site will swoop in and pick up the NFL’s football-addict package.