The future of sports is streaming

Amazon’s Thursday Night Football deal is a tipping point for entertainment.

Amazon securing exclusive streaming rights to Thursday Night Football for 10 years starting in 2023 may be the moment the media world has been bracing for.

While Thursday Night Football drew an average of 11.8 million viewers per game last year compared to Sunday afternoon’s 22 million, the deal is the biggest move yet by a streaming giant in the live sports arena (pun intended). 

The NFL, and major sports in general, are stemming the mass exodus from linear TV in the U.S. Despite a 10% drop in viewership last year, the NFL was still the most-watched program on broadcast, drawing an average of roughly 15 million viewers per game.

Amazon’s interest in sports is old news. The everything store inked a $50 million deal with the NFL back in 2017 to simulcast Thursday Night games on Prime Video. It also scooped up rights around the globe for Premier League soccer, the UEFA Champions League in Germany and the New Zealand Cricket League in India.

But the $1 billion per year streaming rights package with the NFL is Amazon’s biggest foray into the big leagues yet, and it could tip the scales toward streaming live sports faster than ever before.

For the NFL, which also signed packages with NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN that include streaming extensions, the deal is an admission that streaming is the future of the game. New England Patriots owner and NFL media committee chairman Robert Kraft said it himself: “Streaming is truly the future. [This] new hybrid of traditional viewing options and streaming … will help transition viewers to that future."

And it’s not just the NFL moving toward that future. The National Hockey League recently signed a deal to stream more than 1,000 games per year on ESPN+ with cross extensions on Hulu.

Live sports’ shift to streaming won’t happen overnight. There are a lot of complexities, including rights costs, which could ultimately be passed on to consumers as higher prices for services such as Prime. Plus, the sports and network TV have a longstanding, symbiotic relationship that neither are quick to ditch.

That’s why, to this point, the NFL has waded slowly into the streaming waters. But then COVID-19 hit, and streaming has now become too big to avoid. 

And as the worlds of streaming, technology and entertainment converge, the powerful are gaining more power. 

Amazon isn’t the only big tech company with an eye on sports. YouTube will stream 21 Major League Baseball games for free for the third year in a row this season. And although Facebook has taken a more cautious approach, it’s carried La Liga soccer games in India, the World Surf League and some Major League Baseball games in the past. 

Today, broadcast TV is still the destination for primetime live sports. But as sports shift over-the-top, a new crop of media powerhouses is taking shape, and it’s the same one that’s cornered the digital advertising market for the past decade-plus. 

Amazon and YouTube in particular are dark horses in TV advertising and will continue to show up as major presences at the upfront and NewFronts in years to come.

But as an admittedly avid TV watcher, I’m curious how this shift in power balance impacts the viewer. 

For companies such as NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS, Disney and WarnerMedia, entertainment is the business. For Amazon and Google, entertainment — and professional sports — are just another lever to pull in service of keeping customers hooked, happy and shopping on Prime or gobbling up YouTube clips. At least we’ll always have Netflix?

It’s difficult not to see Amazon’s exclusive deal for Thursday Night football, like so many things this year, as a tipping point. 

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