The NFL—that league that is only now accepting the idea of mobile quarterbacks and knowledgeable women—was taking a leap into the future. Last year, it teamed up with Twitter to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games, and this season it made a deal to do the same on Amazon Prime Video. Amazon, one of the world’s most technologically advanced companies (one that also has attracted controversy over its treatment of workers), would help football figure out how best to present games to fans for the next decade. Or so it seemed.
By the numbers, the partnership has been a success. Amazon’s average viewership was 50% higher than Twitter drew in its inaugural stream and viewers reportedly watched for 2.5 times as long (though the game last year featured the Jets and Bills). In particular, Amazon has harped on its ability to deliver international customers by offering alternative language audio feeds in Portuguese and Spanish. “Reach is a focus of ours. I think Amazon has been able to demonstrate, in everything that they do, massive scale,” NFL media czar Brian Rolapp said after making the deal. “I think this is expanding the reach.” But the league ought to consider other numbers as well.
Like 2.4. That’s how many stars Thursday Night Football has on Amazon, with a majority of reviewers giving the product one star. User InTheKnow, for instance, wrote after the Packers-Bears game: “The game would load and I'd watch 10 minutes of commercials, then the game would come on for 30 seconds, and then everything would freeze up trying to reload. I'd wait 10 min and then the screen would come up saying video unavailable. I'd shut my system down and try again only to get stuck in the loop described above. After 5 or 6 tries I just gave up. Zero stars if possible.”
At its best, the stream was indistinguishable from the traditional CBS offering, which uses that broadcast feed with the addition of Tony Romo and Jim Nantz’s analysis. Early on in the debut, the stream’s audio cut out for a minute or so, but it was smooth for most of the game, and I’d expect it to only get better with time. The Amazon option is perfect for pulling the game up on your phone when you have to leave the living room, whether you’re headed for a beer or the bathroom, or—worst case—the grocery store. Be careful though, as the stream doesn’t jump between resolutions to keep streaming smoothly, and it won’t revert to audio-only as you’d hope in areas with limited signal. Maybe most crucially, the online versions don’t offer rewind or fast forward options.
In 2017, the experience simply doesn’t cut it. Not when YouTube will serve up an infinite playlist of videos personally suited for your tastes. Or when Netflix offers another infinite playlist of high-quality, commercial-free entertainment in every genre imaginable. To access the TNF stream on your TV or mobile device, you’ll almost certainly have to swipe past those options, plus some combination of Hulu, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, all for a reward that is—at best—a facsimile of broadcast TV. And the most frustrating part? It could be so much more.
Because Amazon is limiting the stream to Prime subscribers, it theoretically could write off the cost of the programming as part of that $99/year offering, rather than relying on the traditional deluge of ads. Maybe it could fill the ad breaks with additional in-booth analysis, or highlights, or interviews, or, in true 2017 fashion—those options plus others. Instead, they sold traditional ads for competitors like CBS All-Access and Sling TV. They weren’t interactive, or particularly user-specific. They were TV Ads. And as streamers are now accustomed to, those ads are played over and over again.
Then there’s Amazon’s X-ray technology, used in Prime Video to provide biographical data on every actor in any scene. Maybe it could be used to show fantasy stats or just highlight key players, or allow fans to pick which players they’d like to follow throughout the game. Amazon also owns Twitch, the world’s best democratized streaming platform for gamers. Imagine getting to watch Thursday Night Football alongside retired players, or inactive coaches, or celebrity fans as they streamed live in a corner of the window. (Again, options!) Last year, Twitter provided a basic stream of tweets alongside its stream. Amazon has nothing, except more ads for the NFL Shop below the game on Amazon.com. To survive, the NFL needs to compete with Snapchat and Netflix. This? This isn’t that.
The truth is: The NFL’s Thursday Night streaming experiment isn’t for us, dedicated football followers. And Rolapp has pretty much told us as much. It’s about reach—a hungry league reaching out for yet more viewers for its current product. Thursday Night Football on Amazon isn’t a revolution. It’s more of the same.