Why the Patrick Mahomes-Justin Herbert showdown on Amazon will produce paltry viewership

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The NFL again delivered stellar ratings in Week 1 with 20 million viewers tuning into Monday Night Football alone on cable channel ESPN, and more than 121 million overall across the first 16 games, the league crowed.

And then there is tonight.

Look for viewership for Thursday Night Football, despite featuring marquee quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and Justin Herbert of the Chargers, to fall off a cliff. That’s because the NFL’s great experiment with moving an entire game package to streaming launches Thursday night on Amazon Prime (Prime did show a preseason game; more on that below).

The NFL is well aware the numbers will pale by comparison, but just how much will they shrink? And is the league ready for the inevitable stories on social media of fans griping about not finding the game and why it’s not on a network?

TNF averaged about 16 million viewers per game last year on Fox, and Amazon has told advertisers to expect 12.5 million comparable viewers. Experts scoff at that and expect a number half that, if not lower.

“Last year, they had an exclusive game, I think it was Week 16, Cardinals, Niners. It was rumored to have done 4.8 million,” said Daniel Cohen, Octagon’s executive vice president of global media rights consulting. “I think with all the marketing that goes into it, they can get closer to six this year.”


Richard Sherman will make his regular-season debut on Thursday as an analyst on Amazon Prime Thursday Night Football. (Kirby Lee/USA Today)

Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive, projects a lower number. “Kind of hope for them it has 8 million viewers. I think it will do five.”

The rule of thumb among media analysts is that preseason games average 20 percent of a regular-season contest, Cohen said. There is only one data point with Prime, and it’s not promising. The Aug. 25 exhibition tilt between the Cardinals and 49ers had 1 million viewers, but half of those watched on local TV (in the home markets of the competing TNF teams the contests can be aired on traditional TV).

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Using 1 million, Cohen said, one would project 5 million viewers for Thursday’s game. But there is no precedent for a preseason game exclusively streamed — again other than in the home markets — so it’s hard to know whether to rely on the 20 percent metric. Based on the streams alone, the viewership figure would come in at 2.5 million.

Amazon has been marketing TNF on Prime for weeks, and the platform has a vast reach with more than 200 million subscribers, according to the company. But even the NFL conceded some of its fans might have a hard time finding the game.

“Our fans are going to have to find it. Their behavior is going to change,” Jeff Miller, an NFL executive vice president of communications, told reporters on Wednesday. While his words are hardly a news flash in an era where sports content is littered across an array of traditional and streaming platforms, thereby making it harder for fans to find their games, it is nevertheless remarkable to hear it from the NFL, because the league for so long emphasized the reach of network television.

Why the league is doing this is obvious — yes, the $1 billion annual payment from Amazon is critical too. Younger fans are cutting the cord and watching media on the go and on different devices, so the thinking is to meet them on their terms.

“We want to make sure that we are and have always been available to as many fans where they are as frequently and as regularly as possible,” Miller said. “And in this case, it’s an issue, obviously, of people moving to streaming into digital just like many years ago was an issue of moving to a cable platform.”

Miller compared the move to the seminal moment in 1987 when the NFL aired games for the first time on ESPN, a momentous shift at the time from network to cable. Surely in those first few weeks, Miller added, ratings were down, but over the long haul the move proved a resounding success.

Octagon’s Cohen agrees with Miller partly on the comparison, but said there is one crucial difference: ESPN then and now is a destination point for sports fans. Amazon Prime is not.

“The general Amazon Prime subscriber goes on, well, I can speak from experience of late, to buy Huggies,” said Cohen, who has a newborn daughter. “And, ‘Oh, by the way, maybe there’s a new movie on or an NFL game.’ But they’re much less, from a consumer perspective, there’s much less impetus to sign on to Amazon for the NFL. It’s nice to have as part of the ecosystem, whereas with ESPN, the NFL was becoming a need to truly be a worldwide leader in sports broadcasting.”

The TNF Amazon deal is for 11 years, so the league is certainly viewing the change as a long-term proposition. And in the long run, the league may be right, but it is ironic that the big day comes after a week of plum ratings on traditional TV.

“Did you see these ESPN figures, for Monday Night Football? They’re bananas. They’re strong,” Crakes said. “And a lot of people were talking, you know, ‘It’s kind of funny streaming was so popular. Everybody wants to do it.’ Now I see it’s everybody’s like, ‘Revenge of linear TV.’ They’re dunking on, you know, streaming.” Linear TV means free and cable channels.

How will the NFL spin the lower numbers in the coming weeks, beyond saying the Amazon deal is a long-term proposition? Cohen expects three talking points: the long-horizon play, getting younger viewers and the innovations Amazon is expected to bring.

From a production standpoint, not too much is expected to change under the steady hand of executive producer Fred Gaudelli, who managed Sunday Night Football on NBC for years. There will be more cameras, an extra skycam, and even a new theme song.

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Amazon does not want to rock the boat too much and turn off traditional viewers. There will be alternate feeds, one with sports and comedy sensation Dude Perfect. But by and large, other than the platform, the production should look familiar.

Cohen said he is interested in two areas tonight: If there is any technical hiccup, from buffering to outages that would spark social media vitriol; and whether Amazon’s talent can create any viral moments.

Amazon invested heavily not only in game announcers Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit, but in colorful analysts like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Richard Sherman.

“What crazy stuff is Richard Sherman, Ryan Fitzpatrick going to say?” Cohen asked. “What’s going to go viral?” And what’s going to be interesting? What’s going to be Amazon’s response to the Manningcast, if you will, where every single Tuesday morning or even Monday night, trending on Twitter is something some guest or (something) Eli or Peyton said, so how can they get that virality going?”

(Top photo: Steve Sanders/Associated Press)

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