Like any good conspiracy, this one starts with a gossip site. During this year’s Super Bowl, CBS cameras picked up Amazon founder Jeff Bezos hanging out in NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s suite. That weekend, Page Six also reported on Bezos’ attendance at Patriots owner Bob Kraft’s VIP dinner. At the time, speculation centered around a potential Seahawks sale, but what if one of the world’s richest men had his eyes on another prize?
Cut to April. Two years after acquiring Thursday Night Football rights for $50 million (or $80 million, depending on how you count) and one year after Amazon re-upped for $130 million, the partners were quiet this spring. Theoretically, Amazon’s broadcasting relationship with the NFL will conclude when their contract runs out at the end of this season. But it doesn’t feel that way.
Now to Thursday night. After a week on NBC and two weeks solely on the NFL Network, TNF returned to FOX and Amazon (as well as NFLN) this week when the Eagles beat the Packers in Lambeau. As the NFL’s biggest partner on an hour-count basis, FOX upped its game this year, offering TNF in HDR and 4K through its app. (For all the technical details, check out this Q&A.) But Amazon showed off some new tricks too.
The company added a new position to Hannah Storm and Andrea Kremer’s broadcast booth, upgraded their setup, and are pushing the audio option more fervently this time around. It launched a pregame NFL Next show starring Kay Adams and Chris Long. Amazon-owned Twitch has a redesigned interactive element for fans viewing on that platform, plus a swath of personalities set to “co-stream” games this season.
Meanwhile, Amazon developers added some of the NFL’s Next Gen Stats to Prime Video’s X-Ray pop-up system, and expanded access to the tool from just Fire TV’s to include mobile apps. “We had to go back to the drawing board to design this one,” says X-Ray head of product, Alex Kravis. “The mobile surface is different than a living room device, and live is very different from video-on-demand for movies or TV. So we started from scratch.” Describing the feature and the team’s goals, Kravis and senior program manager Brandon Love did not sound like they planned on winding down anytime soon. Neither does Kremer.
‘We ask [teams] for the same things in preparation the other broadcasters do,” she told Variety. “Last year it was, ‘Amazon who?’ Now we’re a known quantity.” With shoulder programming, face-of-the-brand announcers, and an improved user experience, Amazon feels more like an honest-to-goodness NFL broadcast partner than ever before. While Twitter has invested in conversational studio shows and Facebook has built out documentary programming, Bezos’ group has extended their lead in live games (though YouTube has also taken steps forward). The NFL would be remiss to take a step backwards in its Amazon partnership. In fact, it seems likelier that Amazon will offer more, not less, football in 2020.
And here’s where another NFL media contract comes into play: AT&T’s Sunday Ticket deal. AT&T-owned DirecTV has the rights through 2022, but while much was made of a supposed preseason deadline for the league to opt-out early, commissioner Roger Goodell explained to Sports Business Journal that negotiations were more fluid.
“We’ll continue to talk to [AT&T] about whether that’s made available to a broader audience through other platforms—either through AT&T or otherwise,” Goodell told reporter Ben Fischer. Partially the discussions might be dragging because of numerous executive changes at DirecTV since it was acquired by AT&T. (John Donovan, formerly in charge of DirecTV, is one of several to have moved on.) As for the “otherwise,” SBJ reported that ESPN, DAZN, and Amazon have been involved in conversations.
Amazon would offer significantly more reach than sports-only subscription products ESPN+ or DAZN. In fact, its scale could hurt any attempt to nab Sunday Ticket in the eyes of NFL partners wary that easy access to every out-of-market game would hurt ratings (and thus local ad sales). But if the NFL truly wanted to test the potential of a significant alternative digital broadcast package, and stick with a current partner in the process, Amazon seems like the obvious choice. Sunday Ticket could be sold as a Prime Video Channel with Storm and Kremer calling a “game of the week” available on Twitch.
Such totally hypothetical negotiations would give Amazon and the NFL plenty of reason to hold off on renewing their TNF arrangement, explain the delay in clarifying Sunday Ticket’s future, and also provide Bezos an extra reason to spend the day before the Super Bowl with Kraft, who chairs the league’s media committee (and who’s son heads its digital media committee). So, how’s that for a conspiracy theory?
While Amazon’s NFL deal might be slated to wrap up this season, Thursday’s TNF return wasn’t the beginning of the end. It is just the start.