Amazon will kick off its foray into live streaming of NFL games Thursday night when it will air a matchup between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers on its Prime Video service.
It's another option to the traditional broadcasts on CBS and the NFL Network. Amazon will stream 10 Thursday night games and one Christmas game this season, and the success of those transmissions could determine how quickly the NFL is ready to offer one of its packages exclusively to a streaming company.
The NFL's Thursday night package is being carried jointly by CBS, NBC, the NFL Network and Amazon this year, but the 2018 package will soon be up for bid. There could be substantial interest from companies like Twitter — which aired Thursday night games last year — Amazon, and potentially other tech behemoths like Google, Apple or Facebook.
"I think there will be real interest by digital-first companies and digital-first platforms in distributing NFL games on an exclusive basis and more broadly that on the single-game experience we've done in the past," said Hans Schroeder, the chief operating officer for NFL Media. "I think we're going to have some interesting options for us to look at and I think what we do with Amazon this year will be incredibly informative with how we make those decisions."
Amazon is paying $50 million for the rights to these games for its Prime Members, a marked increase from the $10 million Twitter paid last year for 10 games.
That still pales in comparison to the more than $5 billion a year the NFL gets from television partners like NBC, CBS and ESPN.
"You have to be very cognizant of where the eyeballs are. But the percentage of people who are watching on TV versus on their phone or table is extreme," said Fred Gaudelli, the producer for NBC's NFL broadcasts. "We might have over 25 million watching on TV and there are 500,000 watching elsewhere. That is a huge discrepancy."
The vast majority of NFL fans still prefer to watch games on their TVs via broadcast or cable networks. The streams on Twitter drew an average audience of about 265,800 viewers per minute, a small fraction of the audience for those games on traditional television.
Schroeder sees growth potential, though. About 3 million per week tuned in for parts of games last year, and about 80 percent of the audience was 34 or younger. In Amazon's favor, viewers are used to watching longer shows on Prime than they are on Twitter, and they can get it on their TV apps, game consoles and other devices, as well as tablets and mobile phones.
"They're bringing people into an environment where they are used to watching video for extended lengths," Schroeder said. "What we're anxious to see is how putting video into a video-first experience leads to consumption of NFL live games. We're certainly really hopeful and really confident what Amazon will deliver from an experience standpoint. We think having that access to any digital screen anywhere where they're used to watching longer-form content will really lead to an even broader engagement profile by our viewers."
Amazon has not stated targets for audience size or additional Prime customers — the streaming service costs $99 annually.
"That's not how we do it," said Jim DeLorenzo, the head of Amazon Sports. "It's really looking to see, how do our customers react to it? And that will guide our decision about whether this is successful."
Amazon's broadcast will be available in 200 countries and offer unique features. There will be audio feeds in Spanish, Portuguese and even an English language one geared toward foreign fans not as familiar with American football.
Fans can also do football trivia on their Alexa devices, and more interactive features could be added in future years after an exclusive interactive contract between Microsoft and the NFL expires.
Amazon is looking beyond the NFL, as well, and has already secured the digital rights to the Next Gen ATP finals for the best tennis players 21 and under in November. It could bid on bigger deals in the near future.
"There's already a demand for those digital services. That will continue to increase," said Jim DeLorenzo, the head of Amazon Sports. "We will always be looking for ways to best serve our customer. If that's by having more live sports on there that's what we'll look at."