Eight years ago, the NFL enlisted Hall of Famer Lynn Swann to assist with a clumsy and clunky effort to preserve the blackout rule.
The league, facing mounting pressure for its position that games not sold out within 72 hours of kickoff would not be televised in the local market, linked the anti-blackout crowd with the “Pay-TV” bogeyman.
“Pay-TV lobbyists have manufactured a controversy in an effort to change the current rule and charge fans for games they currently watch for free,” the website pushing the league’s “Protect Football on Free TV” initiative declared in 2015. “We cannot let these special interests dictate what is best for NFL fans and their communities.”
Fast forward to 2022, and one of the league’s most important TV packages is, you guessed it, available exclusively on Pay TV. Although the teams that play in the Thursday night games on Amazon Prime will have their contests televised for free in the local markets, everyone else will have to: (1) have access to Amazon Prime; (2) enjoy high-speed Internet access that will allow the games to be televised in an enjoyable and effective way; and (3) understand how to activate and utilize Amazon Prime from a smart TV or other device.
The league has given Amazon Prime a strong package of games for Thursday night, with the obvious goal of propping up efforts to get people to pay for this Pay-TV product. (That said, it was inevitable that most teams would appear in the Thursday night package, since the league imposes the Sunday-to-Thursday turnaround on a given team only once per year, at most.) The real test comes in September, when the casual fan prepares to watch Chargers-Chiefs on Thursday, September 15, checks his or her local listings, and realizes that, unless Amazon Prime has been purchased, the game will not be seen in that household.
The audiences will be much smaller on Thursdays in 2022 than they were in years that featured an NFL Network and three-letter network simulcast. It’s a long-term play for the NFL and Amazon. And it will be interesting to see whether the league and/or Amazon employ full transparency and honesty when disclosing viewership numbers.
In 2017, the NFL didn’t release numbers for a Ravens-Jaguars game in London that streamed for free on Yahoo.com, claiming that they weren’t ready. A month later, they still weren’t ready. Six years later, is the NFL ready for what potentially will happen if fans aren’t ready to embrace Amazon Prime?
This means that the NFL and Amazon Prime will need to work diligently and persistently to raise awareness as to the shift of Thursday Night Football from broadcast to streaming. Although hard-core fans of the sport know it’s coming, most casual fans are and will remain clueless — possibly until the early evening of September 15, when they switch ’round and ’round ’til half past dawn through 57 channels and no NFL on.