Tonight could be a watershed moment in the history of televised sports. Amazon Prime Video will debut its Thursday Night Football package, and will have a great divisional matchup between the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, featuring outstanding young quarterbacks Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes squaring off having both won their 2022openers, to kick things off.
There’s been an awful lot of speculation about how this will impact the future of sports media rights and coverage. Despite the perceived ubiquity of available of Prime Video, included in Prime membership plans that for millions become a lifeline when the pandemic began, there are apparently still millions of fans who can’t or won’t pay for the right to see tonight’s game. Since Prime is guaranteeing 12.5 million viewers for tonight’s game, and has reportedly invested in the amount of $67 million per game for the rights to broadcast it, that’s not an insignificant concern, even if for Jeff Bezos that’s literal couch change.
But they’re already off to a way better start than the first time the NFL dipped its toe into livestreaming.
On Sunday morning October 27, 2015, a regular season NFL game aired on a streaming service (Yahoo!) for the first time ever. It was a London-based game between the 3-3 Buffalo Bills and 1-5 Jacksonville Jaguars, and it kicked off at 9:30 AM in those markets; 6:30 AM on the West Coast. These were two of the smallest media markets in the league, and the Jags have had one foot in England for years, so even their own home fan base is modest. Bluntly, there wasn’t much downside for the league in making this game available primarily through the internet.
Still, Yahoo!, which was attempting to build out its original video content business under aggressive CEO Marissa Meyer, believed it was worth $20 million for the chance to broadcast this game globally. As CNN Business reported earlier that year when the deal was announced:
Yahoo is promoting the event this way: “For the first time in NFL history, anyone with an internet connection can tune in, exclusively on Yahoo, from anywhere to watch a live football game for free. Whether you’re on your phone, tablet, laptop, console or connected device — we’ve got you covered.”
For Yahoo, the game is a huge opportunity to tout itself as a leader in web video.
“We’re thrilled that the NFL has chosen Yahoo for this historic opportunity,” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in a statement. “It marks a significant change in the way users can access this amazing content.”
At the time the deal for this game was announced in early 2015, Mayer and Yahoo! were on a roll. She was ranked sixth on Forbes’ “40 under 40” list, Yahoo!’s stock price was high, and was aggressively pursuing content deals to better compete with Prime and Netflix, and saw live sports as a white area of opportunity.
The game itself was a roller coaster of technical and on-field highs and lows, Viewers watching on traditional laptops were frustrated and expressed indignence on social media to that effect. Numerous video freezes were reported in the moment (though, as Sports Illustrated later wrote, more experienced internet users and those watching on devices experienced far fewer issues with buffering and freezes). The NFL had hedged its bets; it made the game available to Sunday Ticket subscribers such as myself, and also licensed the game to affiliates in the teams’ markets, so some of the most ardent fans had glitch-free options.
The game itself wasn’t compelling early on, either; the Jags scored 27 unanswered points within six-ish minutes in the second quarter to break out to a huge lead over the favored Bills. But behind the guidance of the revered EJ Manuel, who had earlier committed three turnovers to aid the Jags’ run, the Bills rallied with 28 unanswered points of their own, eventually taking a 31-28 lead off a Corey Graham interception of an errant Blake Bortles pass with 5:21 remaining, But Bortles redeemed himself with what proved to be the game-winning drive minutes later; an Allen Hurns 31-yard touchdown pass with 3:05 to go cementing the Jacksonville upset.
It was when the reporting of the results began the next day that the real histrionics began. Initially, the NFL and Yahoo! crowed about record viewership. At one point early on the morning of October 26, Yahoo! bragged about 33.6 million streams, which some media outlets construed as viewers, which would have ranked it as the most-viewed regular season telecast in NFL history at the time were that true. To experienced media observers (moi included), something smelled rotten. So the mainstream sports fan was about to get a crash course in advanced TV metrics. As the esteemed New York Times sports media columnist (and fellow John Bowne High School alum) Richard Sandomir later explained:
As an experiment, the webcast was a success for Yahoo and the league. It commanded a substantial global audience of 15.2 million unique users.
Yet, looked at in a different way, the audience for the N.F.L.-Yahoo venture does not look stupendous. After a mathematical conversion that Yahoo disputes, the 15.2 million unique users turns into the television equivalent of 2.36 million average viewers, about 1.6 million in the United States.
Then you realize that a unique viewer is one who has watched a minimum of three seconds of a program, a low bar of entry. It is a certainty that most people, if only displaced Bills and Jaguars fans, stuck around for more than three seconds. Television viewers need to watch one to six minutes to be counted by Nielsen. So Yahoo’s figures might have been fattened by those who did not stay after a few seconds (true fans they were not) or by a feature on Yahoo’s sites that automatically started a game stream, whether the user wanted it or not.
Yahoo! naturally disputed those numbers, citing, as Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal reported, numbers than indicated that 15.2 million unique viewers watched some part of the game. Since streamers sell on reach, and since the NFL itself regularly reports reach on tentpole events such as the Super Bowl, they were resolute in their belief that the game would be a first for Yahoo! and streaming video as a business.
Well, they were half right.
As it turned out, the reality check of being called out so explicitly by seasoned media observers accelerated a series of unfortunate events for Mayer and Yahoo! As Wikipedia recounts:
In March 2016 Fortune named Mayer as one of the world’s most disappointing leaders. Yahoo! stocks continued to fall by more than 30% throughout 2015, while 12 key executives left the company. In December 2015, the New York-based hedge fund SpringOwl, a shareholder in Yahoo Inc., released a statement arguing that Mayer be replaced as CEO. Starboard Value, an activist investing firm that owns a stake in Yahoo, likewise wrote a scathing letter regarding Mayer’s performance at Yahoo. By January 2016, it was further estimated that Yahoo!’s core business has been worth less than zero dollars for the past few quarters. Mayer announced her resignation on June 13, 2017. In spite of large losses in advertising revenue at Yahoo! and a 50% reduction in staff during her 5 years as CEO, Mayer was paid a total of $239 million over that time, mainly in stock and stock options.
I guess she can still afford a subscription to Prime Video?
This isn’t Amazon’s first rodeo with NFL coverage. In December, 2020, a late-season afternoon game between the 49ers and Cardinals reported reached 11.2 million viewers (it would appear that was a reach number as well)–though, as Variety!’s Todd Spengler reported at the time, there were qualifiers in this case as well:
Amazon boasted that it will “exclusively” stream the Cardinals-49ers game. But that’s not technically correct: The game will also be available to stream on mobile through the NFL, 49ers, Cardinals and Verizon Media’s Yahoo Sports mobile properties. In addition, the game will be televised in both teams’ home markets (on NBC affiliate KNTV in San Francisco and Fox affiliate KSAZ in Arizona).
That’s similar to what will occur tonight, as well as what occurred three weeks ago when a pre-season game between the Niners and Houston reached 1.04 million viewerrs per Sports Media Watch, a far smaller audience than Amazon is promising. And as we noted previously, the TVB revealed roughly half of that figure came from the broadcast outlets in the San Francisco and Houston DMAs that supplemented Prime Video’s coverage. With the #2 market in the country, plus a high-rated smaller market, as part of tonight’s coverage of a key regular season matchup, that contribution could be even higher.
Besides, these days many advertisers are choosing to look beyond mere audience delivery as justification for their buys. Amazon is promising additional proprietary insights and data to its partners, and with sources such as unconnected screens and businesses which will be showcasing Prime’s coverage via DIRECTV, the number of viewers they will eventually–and privately–report will likely exceed anything that is released by even the most prudent pundits.
And, sadly, many of the watchdogs that caught Yahoo! in their exaggerations of 2015 are no longer actively working for the competitors and outlets that held them–and, ultimately, CEO Mayer–accountable.
All indications are tonight’s game should be well received, both technically and critically. The production team, largely the Emmy-winners that have produced the number one program in television, NBC’s SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL, is top-notch; two dozen HD cameras will be in force. Al Michaels’ familiar nuanced play-by-play ,versus the screaming Kevin Harlan that broadcast that Bills-Jags game, will be welcomed.
I’m loath to bet this game, and besides, I’m in nowhere near the financial shape of Marissa Mayer now or then. But if I could make a wager, I’ll bet Prime Video’s Mike Hopkins will look far better tomorrow morning than Mayer and her team did seven Octobers ago. And I’m pretty sure they’ll report their performance more transparently and accurately.
At least I hope they will. They’re anything but yahoos.
Until next time…