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

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

And then there is tonight.

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

The NFL is well aware that the numbers will pale in comparison, but how much will they go down? And is the league ready for the inevitable social media stories of fans complaining that the game can’t be found and why it’s not on any network?

TNF averaged about 16 million viewers per game last year on Fox, and Amazon told advertisers to expect 12.5 million comparable viewers. Experts scoff at this and expect half the number, or even less.

“Last year they had an exclusive game, I think it was week 16, Cardinals, Niners. It was rumored to have made 4.8 million,” said Daniel Cohen, executive vice president of ‘Octagon, global media rights consultancy “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 that’s 8 million viewers. I think it will be five.

The rule of thumb among media analysts is that preseason games average 20% of a regular season game, Cohen said. There’s only one data point with Prime, and it’s not promising. The Aug. 25 exhibition between the Cardinals and 49ers drew 1 million viewers, but half of those watched on local television (in national markets for competing TNF teams, competitions may be shown on traditional television) .

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Using 1 million, Cohen said, would project 5 million viewers for Thursday’s game. But there’s no precedent for an exclusively streamed pre-season game – again other than in domestic markets – so it’s unclear whether to trust the 20% metric. Based on streams alone, the number of viewers would be 2.5 million.

Amazon has marketed TNF on Prime for weeks, and the platform has an extensive reach with more than 200 million subscribers, according to the company. But even the NFL admitted that some of its fans might struggle to find the game.

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

It’s obvious why the league is doing this — yes, Amazon’s billion-dollar annual payout is essential, too. Young fans are cutting the cord and watching media on the go and on different devices, so the idea 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 a problem, obviously, that people are switching to streaming to digital, just like many years ago it was a problem to switch to a cable platform.”

Miller likened the shift to the seminal moment in 1987 when the NFL first aired games on ESPN, a momentous shift in the network’s era to cable. Granted, during those first few weeks, Miller added, the ratings were down, but in the long run, the move proved a resounding success.

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

“The general Amazon Prime subscriber goes on, well, I can speak from recent experience, to buy Huggies,” said Cohen, who has a newborn daughter. “And, ‘Oh, by the way, maybe there’s a new movie or an NFL game.’ But there’s a lot less of them, from a consumer perspective there’s a lot less desire to connect to Amazon for the NFL It’s nice to be part of the ecosystem, whereas with ESPN the NFL was becoming essential to truly be a world leader in sports broadcasting.

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

“Have you seen those ESPN numbers, for Monday Night Football? These are bananas. They are strong,” Crakes said. “And a lot of people were talking about, you know, ‘It’s kind of funny, streaming was so popular. Everybody wants to do it. Now I see everybody’s like, ‘Revenge of linear TV.’ dive into, you know, streaming. Linear TV means free-to-air and cable channels.

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

Production-wise, we don’t expect too many changes under the steady hand of executive producer Fred Gaudelli, who helmed NBC’s Sunday Night Football for years. There will be more cameras, an additional skycam, and even a new theme song.

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Amazon doesn’t want to rock the boat too much and turn off traditional viewers. There will be alternate streams, one with the sporty and comedic feel Dude Perfect. But overall, aside from the platform, the production should feel familiar.

Cohen said he’s looking at two areas tonight: if there’s a technical issue, from buffering to outages that would trigger social media vitriol; and whether Amazon talent can create viral moments.

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

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

(Top photo: Steve Sanders/Associated Press)

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