Not many people become pioneers by the age of 77, especially in sports broadcasting.
That will be the case, however, when Al Michaels calls Thursday night’s game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs on Prime Video.
The matchup between AFC West rivals marks the start of an 11-year agreement between Amazon and the NFL and marks the first time the league has sold a games package to a streaming service.
“Not long ago, like many of us, I had no idea what streaming was. I find it exciting because all my friends, my children and grandchildren think this is the coolest thing in the world. said Michaels, who will be working with Kirk Herbstreit and side-job reporter Kaylee Hartung.
“I said to someone, ‘They think we’re coming over the Rockies in a wagon.’ I said, “We’re coming across the Rocky Mountains on broadband. We are the pioneers.”
Amazon won the rights to the Prime Time bundle last March. It was originally slated to begin in 2023, along with the rest of the league’s broadcast deals, but two months later, the NFL announced that Amazon would be taking over the Thursday night package from Fox a year early.
That gave Amazon 15 months to get everything up and running. It is the first time a new broadcast partner has been added to the NFL framework since Fox joined in 1994.
For Marie Donoghue, vice president of Global Sports Video at Amazon, Thursday’s game marks a rewarding conclusion to a four-year quest to bring the NFL into the company.
Donoghue was ESPN’s executive vice president for 19 years and saw what the NFL could do for Prime Video, much like it did when ESPN and Fox first started broadcasting games.
Although this is Prime Video’s first major US sports package – it includes some New York Yankees, Seattle Storm and Seattle Sounders games regionally – it has a solid international record.
In the UK, 20 Premier League matches and the US Open tennis tournament will be broadcast. A package of UK Champions League games will also be broadcast from 2024. Prime Video is already streaming the European club football competitions in Italy and Germany.
The biggest concern with any event that is live streamed is the video quality and making sure the infrastructure can handle the demands. Jared Stacy, Prime Video’s Director of Global Live Sports Production, was already in the production van at Arrowhead Stadium on Tuesday afternoon making final preparations, including covering any eventualities.
Amazon and the NFL also have a history. Amazon Web Services has been working with the league for next gen stats since 2015, while Prime Video has been simulcasting Thursday night games since 2017.
The 15-game package averages $1.2 billion per season. That could increase slightly starting next year, when the NFL is expected to schedule a game for the day after Thanksgiving, as “Black Friday” unofficially kicks off the holiday shopping season.
Jon Christian, the EVP of OnPrem, a technology consultancy specializing in media and entertainment, said Thursday night’s package is a great test case for the NFL.
“This is the first time an NFL game has been locked behind a streaming subscription service,” he said. “It eliminates a portion of the audience that doesn’t have that capability or Amazon Prime. It will be interesting to see how much they benefit from the ‘cable cutters’ and how much this deal spurs new Amazon Prime subscribers.”
Those watching the Prime Video app on their TVs, phones or tablets can get on-demand stats and highlights to enhance the second screen experience.
When it comes to the actual game broadcasts, don’t expect Amazon to reinvent the wheel when executive producer Fred Gaudelli is in charge. It will be Gaudelli’s 33rd season as a principal producer on a prime-time NFL package. He worked on ESPN’s Sunday Night Package from 1990 to 2000 and ABC’s Monday Night Football from 2001 to 2005 before moving to NBC’s Sunday Night Football for the last 16 seasons.
Gaudelli and his production team have state-of-the-art equipment, including an ergonomic production cart that allows him to call the game while standing. The production team completed two playthrough sessions in Los Angeles prior to the August 25 preseason game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans.
Many praised the pre-season presentation, saying that it seemed Prime Video had been carrying games for a couple of years, rather than the first.
“I think the quality of the game coverage and of course the announcement will be as good as it is in the NFL. That’s my goal, that’s why I’m here and that’s what we intend to do,” Gaudelli said.
Gaudelli has worked with Michaels since 2001, while Herbstreit emerged as an analyst after Troy Aikman decided to join ESPN. Hartung, previously a sideline journalist at ESPN, is returning to esports after five years at ABC News and CNN.
The area where Prime could excel is in its pre-game show. Amazon has established veterans in Charissa Thompson and Tony Gonzalez, but also hired Richard Sherman, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andrew Whitworth. When three TV newbies come straight from the soccer field, things could get entertaining.
While the NFL and Prime Video want to attract huge viewership immediately, both parties realize the transition will take time, although there has been extensive publicity as to where the games can be found. While everyone is focused on the first game, the bigger picture lies in the future.
“This is the start of an 11-year contract. Of course we want the widest possible audience, but this is a big change for the fans,” said Donoghue. “We feel very comfortable with it. We’re too focused on our production and what we’re delivering to the fans. We have set ourselves an incredibly high bar. So we know that will evolve over time.”