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Ready, set, stream — a new NFL era begins Thursday

Left: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs passes during a 2017 game. Right: Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert looks to pass in a game last year.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Left: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs passes during a 2017 game. Right: Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert looks to pass in a game last year.

Imagine this scene tonight.

You are a diehard NFL fan. Let's call you Julie. You, Julie, settle onto your comfy couch in front of your big-screen TV, imagining the offensive fireworks you're about to watch. The second Thursday night match-up of this young season couldn't be better — the Kansas City Chiefs and their dynamic quarterback Patrick Mahomes, against the Los Angeles Chargers and their dynamo signal-caller, Justin Herbert.

So you point the remote, but there's no Thursday night game on Fox, like there was last year. Hmmm, you say. Well then, let's try the NFL Network because it too carried TNF games.

Nope. No Mahomes, no Herbert, on either.

And then your son walks into the living room with his eyes glued to his phone and says "hey mom — you ready for some football??!!"

"Yes," you say, a little frantically, "but where?"

"Right here!" he says, holding up the phone. "Streaming! Only streaming!"

He's almost 100% right. Thursday night games still will be on free, over-the-air TV in the home markets of the two teams playing. And they'll be shown in the nation's bars and restaurants.

But for football-loving homebodies like Julie, tonight marks the next big thing — and a potential challenge — in how she consumes the NFL, still this country's #1 spectator sport.

For the first time, the league will, for most U.S. fans, stream a package of games over the internet. Courtesy of Amazon Prime video.

From risk to success

It's been 35 years since the NFL has taken a bunch of games and placed them on a new media platform.

"For years and years, the NFL distributed its games over broadcast television," said Alex Riethmiller, Communications VP for the league, "whether it [was] on CBS, NBC, Fox, or ABC. But we made a change in 1987, putting our games on cable television with a channel that at that point was relatively young, called ESPN."

Riethmiller acknowledges there was, at first, some upset and confusion and even lower ratings.

"If there was some risk in 1987," he said, "by 2000 or 2005 or whenever, it [seemed] like a no-brainer that we had games on ESPN and it was a huge success. And ESPN helped continue to build the popularity of the NFL."

Everyone at the NFL, he says, feels exactly the same way about the online move with Amazon.

When the league signed network deals last year to show its games, Amazon was included in the whopping 11 year package worth more than $100 billion.

The NFL knows streaming is on the move.

Dancing with the Stars premieres next week on Disney+, after its decades-long run on ABC; this week, the more than 50-year-old soap opera Days of Our Lives, moved from NBC to Peacock.

"Nielsen recently reported that for the first time ever," said Joe Adalian, who writes about streaming for Vulture, "even though broadcast remains the way most people still watch TV and still has the biggest share of overall hours, streaming over the summer surpassed cable TV, in terms of hours and minutes watched."

Will that growing success translate to pro football?

Certainly there's the belief that streaming-aware Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X fans will embrace the new Thursday Night Football platform. Interestingly though, Adalian says an older fan demographic may get onboard more willingly than expected.

"Studies show that viewers over 50 are the fastest growing segment of people who are streaming," he said, "and in many ways represent the biggest or one of the bigger audience groups who watch streaming television."

"The pandemic really sped that up. People were stuck [at] home. They needed things to watch. They started bingeing and they adapted."

Still, a survey by the consumer insights platform DISQO showed only 12% of football fans are happy about the NFL moving to streaming-only games on Thursday nights. That said, the survey also found half of fans still plan to watch streaming TNF.

A Thursday night petri dish

The NFL's Riethmiller says it's no coincidence the league is making its move on Thursdays.

Thursday Night Football is like a petri dish, Riethmiller said, "where we were experimenting and trying different ways. Since it started in 2006, we've always used TNF as a way to try different modes of distribution."

The NFL has been streaming games since 2015, just not as the primary viewing option. And it will continue, on the Thursday night games, using some of the technology it's already used. Such as X-Ray, which provides statistics beyond yards and touchdown, and delves into yards gained after contact for running backs and wide receivers and how long it takes quarterbacks to throw the football.

There'll be a good deal of football knowledge in the announcer's booth - veteran broadcaster Al Michaels will call the games with long-time college analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

Small numbers at first

Riethmiller knows some fans, like our Julie, might not take well to having to buy a streaming subscription to see Thursday Night Football. They may just bypass Thursdays for the all-day Sunday games on broadcast TV, or Monday night on cable.

"I don't know if I would use the word 'risk'," Riethmiller said, "I do think we anticipate the [viewership] numbers you'll see for Thursday Night Football, not only this week but for the entirety of this year, will certainly be lower than what we got last year. Because again, this is a new way of getting the games and there's probably some awareness there that needs to go north."

And there needs to be good internet access as well. Which of course, Adalian says, isn't always the case.

"Certainly there are people in rural communities, who may not have the best broadband," he said, "and for them, there will be a bit of a challenge."

But Adalian says the NFL really doesn't have to worry about a short term dip in viewership, thanks to its 11-year deal.

"[The league] has plenty of time to get this right," he said, "and Amazon's got to pay for it."

And as with ESPN back in 1987, Riethmiller says the NFL believes the TNF/Amazon Prime "petri dish" will grow success.

"I think we feel very confident that over the long term, people will look back on this and say well of course the NFL put games on a streaming platform."

The NFL is confident and ready.

The question to Julie and others....are you?

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.