HOUSTON — When Amazon and the NFL make media history Thursday, you could be mesmerized by the stars.
On the field, two of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the game, Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, will duel. In the booth, Amazon Prime Video’s exclusive broadcast of “Thursday Night Football” will be described by probably the greatest NFL TV play-by-player ever, Al Michaels, and the foremost voice of college football, Kirk Herbstreit.
But if you want to know whether streaming will be the future of how we watch sports, you really need to look at a 5-foot-7 former all-district high school point guard who didn’t even want to be photographed for this story.
Jay Marine is the vice president of Amazon Prime Video and the Global Head of Sports. He comes across as a pass-first, shoot-second executive, who spent the last two decades, mostly by Jeff Bezos’ side, helping to change how we shop and read.
The DNA of Bezos’ business is to play the long game. Amazon’s offense will dink and dunk you until, all of a sudden, nearly everyone you know has one of its packages on their front step.
Now, after agreeing to pay more than $11 billion to be the exclusive home of “Thursday Night Football” for the next 11 years, Amazon is going to Amazon the heck out of the NFL.
Amazon has reached its perch to afford such an expenditure by figuring out how to use digitalization to distribute mostly others’ products more efficiently than basically anyone, anywhere.
The NFL, the most watched programming in the history of television, is now in its cart.
Amazon’s long-term business plan with the NFL is designed to bring in more subscribers to its largest overall service — Amazon Prime membership, which costs $139 per year and includes its famed “free shipping” — as well as expanded advertising and innovation to reach more consumers.
It knows with NFL games, customers will spend more time on Amazon Prime, which, it has determined, leads to selling more paper towels, computers and nearly everything else a person may want to purchase.
On Thursday, the task of distributing the broadcast is why Marine is front and center. Marine and the rest of the thousands of behind-the-scenes Amazonians, as the company calls its employees, are the ones who will actually make the game reach your screen for what will likely be the largest live streaming event in history.
The question is: Will they be able to do it without a hitch?
“We think we can make it better,” said Marine, without a touch of arrogance, during a breakfast a few weeks ago at a Four Seasons hotel before Amazon’s first exhibition game.
‘Be the best booth in TV’
In the bowels of Houston’s NRG Stadium, “Thursday Night Football” executive producer Fred Gaudelli looked like a coach addressing a team as he explained to his camera crew the game plan prior to its Aug. 25 exhibition between the Texans and 49ers. It was just a preseason game, but it was Amazon’s first go-of-it alone.
Gaudelli — the longtime NBC “Sunday Night Football” producer, known for his detailed approach — told this Amazon production crew this is the start of something big. It is hard to imagine he will be wrong, as the most enduring programming in American television is moving for a night to strictly streaming.
Whether it is a success or failure will probably take a decade to find out, but Amazon has built a team that should have a strong presentation from the opening gun.
Under Marine in Amazon’s hierarchy, it has sports TV executives, led by vice president of global sports video Marie Donoghue, a former ESPNer who laid out the plan and negotiated the 11-year TNF deal with the NFL.
In figuring out Amazon’s presentation, Donoghue and her right-hand man, Jared Stacy, Amazon’s global director of live sports production, wanted to innovate, but first knew they must build trust with their audience.
“Our job is to make the broadcast comfortable,” Donoghue said.
What they had in mind was something akin to what NBC has done for years on the No. 1 show in prime time, “Sunday Night Football.”
They wanted to find the next Gaudelli, who has run NBC’s Sunday show since its inception in 2006.
After talking with Gaudelli on how to do that, Amazon decided to just hire the actual Gaudelli. Why get a knockoff when you could have the real thing?
TNF is undoubtedly going to look good under the 62-year-old Gaudelli. It is not only his record, it is the weapons Amazon has given him to deploy his offense.
While a Super Bowl has 36 or so cameras and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” utilizes 25, Amazon will have 29 on each Thursday, Gaudelli said.
SNF has only one skycam, whereas Amazon will have two, the same as Super Bowls. It will appear as you expect a prime-time NFL game to look.
It should also sound big and important, because Mr. “Do you believe in miracles?” Michaels himself, will be out front. While it wasn’t the United States over the USSR in 1980, Amazon finally convincing Michaels to sign his three-year contract felt like it might take a divine agency.
Gaudelli was the link to the 77-year-old Michaels ending up on Prime. Gaudellli has been leading Michaels’ productions for more than two decades, dating to ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”
Over the past year-plus, Michaels was close to an agreement with Amazon, though he flirted with ESPN (he told me he “probably” would have gone there if Joe Buck hadn’t). He tried hard to keep his NBC SNF job, which was bequeathed to Mike Tirico, and attempted to step in front of Kevin Burkhardt for the Fox job vacated by Buck.
None other than Patriots owner and chairman of the NFL TV committee Bob Kraft was calling around to networks, like Fox and ESPN, as a de facto Michaels headhunter.
When all the other options dried up, Michaels signed. Michaels, who has called a record-tying 11 Super Bowls on TV, officially became the voice of exclusive NFL streaming.
Meanwhile, Amazon aimed high for Michaels’ analyst with Aikman, Peyton Manning, Sean McVay and John Lynch among those they tried to lure with that Bezos money. (Though Amazon never actually got to the negotiation table with McVay, it was prepared to offer the Super Bowl-winning McVay $20 million per season.)
While Michaels and McVay would have been a coup, Amazon ended up with Herbstreit. Quite frankly, it is hard to imagine it is not going to be consistently excellent.
Herbstreit, who remains a fixture on ESPN’s college football coverage, including “College GameDay” and its top matchup each Saturday, believes he and Michaels can be the best booth not only in football, but in sports.
“My internal goal — no matter what the critics say — is not to be, ‘Wow, they’re pretty good,’ ” Herbstreit, 53, said. “I want to be the best booth in television. NBA, MLB, college — I want to be the best. I’m not doing this to just limp across the finish line and say, ‘I made it.’
“My goal is to be the best booth in television, and I feel like I’m working with Al and Freddy, I don’t know why we can’t be.”
Before Herbstreit was hired, Michaels barely knew him, which dulled his enthusiasm. Now, after the exhibition game, a practice run and several meetings and dinners, Michaels sounds like he knows that the ultra-prepared Herbstreit should lead to some sweet music.
This is Amazon’s brand out of the gate, taking some football pieces from NBC and ESPN to create its own product that figures to make the transition to a new way to watch easier.
“We are not reinventing the wheel,” Michaels said. “We are going to tweak it, make it better and kind of roll with it.”
On Thursday, Amazon Prime Video customer service will be standing by to help anyone who can’t figure out how to watch the game on their TV or smartphone or whatever device.
Amazon promised 12.5 million viewers to advertisers, according to Ad Age. (The Post has been told by rival network and league executives that the expectation should be at most 7 million or 8 million.)
Whatever the final tally, it is likely going to be the biggest live streaming event in history. Amazon has been testing and retesting for months to avoid any self-inflicted snafus.
They are confident, but this is the big question as the sports world moves more toward streaming. This isn’t 1939, when the first football game was televised nationally and reached 400 sets. This is 2022, and anything less than perfection will have those customer service hotlines ringing and social media buzzing.
This is why, if Amazon is successful beginning Thursday, it will be largely because of Marine and the thousands of Amazonians who make the delivery of the game seamless. It is an enormous task.
“Someone’s going to have poor last mile bandwidth that I can’t change,” Marine said. “And so they may get a little bit of a buffer or someone could have like an 8-year-old device that the hardware just isn’t as powerful. And so that is going to happen.
“What we can do is make sure that everything we’ve built delivers the best experience we can in that environment for that device. We have bit rate monitoring. So if we see low bandwidth, we automatically are bringing down the bit rate so the packets are smaller.
“That’s why we spent so much time really preparing at every level in terms of both the technical scale, but the diversity of devices we support.”
This will be the biggest audience it has ever had, but is far from the first. Amazon has streamed the Premier League games in England and Champions League in Germany. In New York, 21 Yankees games have been exclusively on Amazon this season.
The NFL has been studying the potential of streaming for more than a decade. It is not a coincidence that Amazon Prime Video has streamed TNF — Fox and NFL Network had the broadcast — for the past five years. It positioned Amazon to have the rights all to itself.
“For us, it became a question of, ‘If digital could succeed for an NFL game, who was the right partner?’ ” Hans Schroeder, the COO of NFL Media, said.
Just coincidentally, Amazon also had the biggest check, as the networks (CBS, NBC and Fox) all had Thursday night before and weren’t really bidding on it.
Amazon says it has 80 million customers who actively use Prime Video. While this number is similar to what ESPN has on cable, it is going to take time for viewers to figure it out.
This will lead to adjustments and likely some confusion, no matter how incessantly Amazon promotes the platform.
If viewers don’t want the full offering of Amazon Prime with the “free shipping” and the video, they can just subscribe to Prime Video for $8.99 per month.
The games will also be offered for free on an Amazon service called Twitch, which is favored by video-gamers, while most older fans likely have no idea how to access it. In the local team markets, Kansas City and Los Angeles this week, for example, it will be on over-the-air TV as well. Bars will also have access to the games, through a deal Amazon struck with DirecTV.
The history of media has been won by the best content joining forces with the top and most lucrative distribution channels. This is the bet the NFL and Amazon are making.
What Amazon really does is beat everyone in digital distribution by making it easier for people to get what they want when they want and without as much of a hassle. It started with books that turned into e-commerce, which, for a lot of people these days, is just shopping. It has continued with Kindles and TVs and Alexas and … it goes on and on.
For now, Amazon Prime Video exclusively streaming NFL games is a milestone event in the history of American entertainment.
There will be stars out front, like Mahomes and Herbert, Michaels and Herbstreit, but if this experiment is going to work it will be because of the Jay Marines and all the other Amazonians not pictured who turn streaming the NFL into just watching.