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The Amazon Experience Comes to the NFL

Thursday night’s Chiefs-Chargers game showed that Amazon won’t revolutionize how football games are broadcast; it’ll just try to sell you Prime as you watch

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first thing I thought while watching Thursday’s Kansas City Chiefs–Los Angeles Chargers game, the first NFL game broadcast exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, was, “Boy, there sure are a lot of ads for Amazon Prime Video on this game broadcast on Amazon Prime Video, considering I am paying $14.99 per month to watch this game on Amazon Prime Video.” There were ads for the new Lord of the Rings show, The Boys, and some weird movie with Sylvester Stallone.

To be honest, I was surprised there were commercials at all. Most streaming services—including TV shows on Prime Video—don’t have commercials. And Amazon is one of the largest companies on the planet; its founder, Jeff Bezos, is worth $150 billion, post-divorce. I thought maybe they’d fill the blank spaces built into football games with something unique, something only Amazon could afford to provide, something to convince us that for $9 per month, we can get the premier football-watching experience.

But nope: I am now fully aware of the weird Sylvester Stallone movie. I guess it makes sense: Although Amazon is paying $1 billion per season for exclusive rights to broadcast TNF, not everybody who saw the game was an Amazon Prime customer. By rule, the game was broadcast over the air in the Chiefs’ and Chargers’ home markets; people may have been watching in bars, which is something I’m told NFL fans do; hundreds of thousands of people watched on Prime Video’s official Twitch channel. And even Prime subscribers, who mainly sign up for free shipping on Amazon products, may not be familiar with all the Sylvester Stallone movies the platform has to offer: Amazon says 80 million households in the United States have watched something on Prime this year, but the company has over 200 million subscribers worldwide.

After all, when you watch a football game on CBS or Fox, they show ads for the shows on CBS or Fox. When Al Michaels broadcast for NBC, he fought through pained synopses of whatever new show NBC was broadcasting; now he’s doing it for whatever new show Amazon is broadcasting. (He didn’t sound any more excited to read about “the battle for Middle-earth” than he did reading ads for Chicago Fire or whatever.)

Michaels’s half-bored ad reads were a reminder that this wasn’t a groundbreaking endeavor. Yes, we were repeatedly told that we were entering a new era of NFL broadcasting, and at one point, we got an extended shot of Bezos. (Michaels called Roger Goodell a “pioneer,” even though he is in fact the eighth commissioner of the NFL, rather than the first, and called Bezos “one of the greatest mathematical minds in history,” even though he is a guy who founded a book-selling company who does not have a background in math.) But it was still a pretty conventional NFL game broadcast.

To be fair, it was a very good NFL game broadcast. Many people complained on Twitter about technical issues with the video quality or lag, and observers noted that the sound from the Arrowhead Stadium crowd was notably muted. But there were plenty of positives: Amazon spent big money on Michaels as well as Kirk Herbstreit to give it two of the premier commentators in the sport, and the pregame/halftime/postgame crew features Richard Sherman and Ryan Fitzpatrick—two recently retired NFL players with big personalities and big brains—who are obviously going to be spectacular on camera.

And there were plenty of bells and whistles. Watching on a laptop allowed access to enhanced replays and constantly updated advanced stats, such as how many yards of separation receivers were getting. There was a second stream featuring live All-22 clips, player tracking, and personnel information, which will quickly become a favorite among football nerds.

Amazon also tried to appeal to The Youths with an alternate stream featuring Dude Perfect, the YouTube trick collective, as well as some sort of pregame show featuring a bunch of people I’ve never heard of and a dog. I watched the Dude Perfect stream for about 15 minutes, and honestly didn’t hate it—DeMarcus Ware was making a guest appearance; he kept trying to talk about the football game and the Dudes kept interrupting him to do goofy stunts, at one point actively chiding Ware for providing analysis.

But none of this was exactly innovative. ESPN has produced analytics-heavy alternate broadcasts of big NFL and college football games on its networks, including feeds with alternate angles available for streaming. Several companies have produced quality second-screen programming better than the Dude Perfect telecast, such as ESPN’s Manning-cast or the annual Nickelodeon feed of a playoff game. And the NFL’s Next Gen Stats site provides the same up-to-date stats for prime-time games that were available in the Amazon portal. The scope and polish may have been impressive, but Amazon’s broadcast was a compilation of ideas other companies have already executed.

As it turns out, a fancy new Amazon streaming broadcast of an NFL game is … very similar to a TV broadcast of an NFL game, except now it costs $9 per month. Which is pretty disappointing, because there’s going to be a lot more streaming broadcasts of sports soon. Soccer has essentially already made the shift—you need Peacock or Paramount+ to watch most European soccer matches, and soon Major League Soccer will be broadcast on Apple TV+. MLB already has a weekly game on Apple, and the new Big Ten deal will give Peacock exclusive rights to eight games each season. Even Netflix is considering getting in on the game. As Alex Kirshner wrote for The Atlantic, it’s a future that seems expensive and complicated—and after watching Thursday night’s game, it seems unlikely to bring a game-changing increase in the quality of broadcasts. (And of course, this is Thursday Night football, typically regarded as the worst of the footballs. Chiefs-Chargers was an outlier; next week, Amazon will show a Jacoby Brissett–Mitchell Trubisky game. Week 16, it’ll show Jaguars-Jets, which is mathematically proved to be the worst NFL game possible.)

Watching commercial after commercial for Lord of the Rings, I realized that I’d gone into the evening backward. I had been wondering what Amazon would do to make the football-watching experience different. But the football-watching experience was broadly the same. You’re not going to get better football for your $9 per month—just three hours of Amazon telling you why you should keep paying it $9 per month after its 15 weeks of football are over.