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Volume 20 No. 46


Get ready for NFL action, Amazon style.

Amazon will put its own stamp on the heavily hyped coverage of the league’s “Thursday Night Football” franchise when it debuts Sept. 28 with the Bears-Packers game. That game marks the first of 11 NFL games Amazon will stream this season, a package that will put a spotlight on the sensibilities the Seattle-based company will bring to future sports rights.

A key element that may surprise people is that Amazon will stream four different feeds of the game. It will carry the regular U.S. feed produced by CBS, of course. But it also will have three different sets of announcers — play-by-play and analysts — call the game in different languages over the CBS-produced video. Games will be available in Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and a secondary English feed.

“One of the things that I think makes Amazon unique among the different OTT video players is the fact that we truly are a global service. This is a global deal for us,” said Jim DeLorenzo, who is head of sports for Amazon Video Channels. “That really dovetails well with some of the NFL’s goals to try and increase the popularity of the NFL globally. All U.S. leagues are trying to increase their international footprint. We have the same incentives on our side, trying to make sure that we’re presenting this in the best way possible for our customers.”

First Look podcast, with Amazon discussion beginning a the 12:50 mark:

Amazon stressed the reach of Prime Video to the league.
NFL executives consistently point to Amazon’s global audience as one of the company’s strengths. Amazon says that its Prime Video is available in more than 200 countries and territories, a fact that Amazon emphasized during its NFL negotiations.

The added feed will emphasize that advantage even more strongly. Amazon would not say where their announcers will call the games, but they are not likely to be on-site at the host stadiums. More likely, they will use a video feed in a central city to call the games. Amazon executives would not say who the announcers will be.

The Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese feeds speak for themselves. The secondary English feed will be especially unique. It is set up for extremely casual fans or people who live in English-speaking countries and don’t follow the NFL. The feed will be elementary, essentially for people who don’t know what a first down is.

“The goal for us is that we’re trying to present the best experience for our customers, and we think this will be great for our customers who are outside of the United States,” DeLorenzo said. “You want to make it feel like it’s not something that’s an add-on, but it’s actually designed for people who speak Brazilian Portuguese or Spanish. That’s one of the ways that we’re approaching that.”

Amazon also is developing an NFL-themed Alexa skill, similar to what it already has with the PGA Tour. Someone watching Aaron Rodgers, for example, throw a touchdown pass during Amazon’s first Thursday night game could ask their voice-activated Alexa how many touchdown passes he has. Or they could answer NFL-related trivia questions generated by Alexa, daily team schedules, league news and score updates.

“It’s one of the more innovative ways that we’re utilizing the different components of Amazon outside of just video,” said Amazon spokesperson Rena Lunak.

While many TV executives are wary of Amazon’s overall sports ambitious, they do not expect Amazon’s audience to be much higher than the relatively small numbers Twitter delivered last season. Twitter averaged 265,000 viewers on an average minute basis last season. By comparison, CBS, NBC and NFL Network combined averaged more than 12 million viewers.

“I don’t anticipate much of a change at all this season with Amazon,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. “I don’t anticipate any more effect on our ratings. The primary audience is still going to be on CBS and the secondary audience is going to be on the NFL Network and the tertiary package will be digitally distributed. It will get some users to watch. But I don’t think it will dramatically affect our ratings at all. Since we get credit for the commercials that run nationally, it doesn’t affect us from a business standpoint at all.”

While many will focus on how Amazon handles advertising around NFL games, its executives were tight-lipped about what to expect. Amazon can sell 10, 30-second spots in its streams, sources said, but no deals have been revealed as of yet.

DeLorenzo also promised high-quality video, saying that Amazon is working with the NFL to ensure that the video doesn’t buffer, a complaint frequently heard with streamed video. The high quality of Twitter’s video consistently was praised last season. Amazon counts more than 80 million Prime subscribers, according to various news reports, who pay $99 per year.

“That is a point of emphasis,” DeLorenzo said. “It is something that is important to customers. Customers want to make sure that it’s a high-quality video stream that they’re watching.”

Amazon’s marketing campaign around “Thursday Night Football” includes branded Amazon boxes delivered to people’s homes. The brown boxes, colored like a football, have a “Thursday Night Football” logo and a “Stream Live with Prime Membership” bug.

“It’s something that is pretty rare in terms of what we do,” DeLorenzo said. “It shows how important this is for us.”

 Amazon is paying $50 million this year for the rights to stream the 11 “Thursday Night Football” games.

Amazon has dramatically transformed many segments of commerce, including online retail and digital media. Its entry into ticketing, however, could face greater obstacles before it approaches a similar impact.

Over the past two years and with little fanfare or public comment, Amazon has built up a ticketing operation covering both sports and performing arts venues, beginning first with theaters in the United Kingdom and now moving toward the U.S. and elsewhere.

The company last fall quietly hired former New York Mets and Boston Bruins ticketing executive Leigh Castergine to lead business development for sports and entertainment for Amazon Tickets, which was followed by bringing on former Groupon executive Michael Shaw in May. It has also hired dozens of other domestically based developers and engineers.

Its current job listings describe Amazon Tickets as “a start-up business with a vision of becoming Earth’s most customer-centric ticketing company, a place where event-goers can come to find and discover any ticket they might want to buy online.”

That shows a huge level of ambition. But what exactly will Amazon’s place in the ticketing landscape be, particularly within sports? The company declined several requests to detail its plans, but a Reuters report last month suggested it will mount a serious challenge to established players such as Ticketmaster.

Other ticketing industry executives expect that Amazon will seek to become a distribution partner to other ticketing companies rather than build a full-service, enterprise-level box office system itself.

In theory, that would allow teams and venues to tap into Amazon’s deep well of e-commerce customers, and provide a powerful forum to market tickets to fans who don’t ordinarily visit traditional team websites and mobile applications. Such an approach would also be consistent with Amazon’s other business ventures that have sought to increase subscribership in its Prime membership program.

“More tickets in more places is good for fans and good for rights holders,” said Russ D’Souza, co-founder of SeatGeek, which has been actively developing its SeatGeek Open model that would enable a diverse distribution system for tickets. “We expect massive transformation in primary ticketing as large technology companies like Amazon enter the space and start moving significant numbers of tickets.”

But to established primary ticketing operators, Amazon still presents a quandary. Other ticket distribution partners such as StubHub, Groupon or ScoreBig have traded heavily on secondary or distressed inventory, and extensively shared transaction data as they have partnered with primary ticketing companies and content owners. Amazon getting into primary sports ticketing and gaining access to top-tier inventory would likely require significant rights-fee payments and liberal sharing of customer data, and it’s not certain whether Amazon is willing to make either step as they develop Amazon Tickets. Numerous media reports have suggested Amazon’s talks with companies such as Ticketmaster have stalled due to disputes on control of consumer data.

And after a brief selloff last month of stock for Ticketmaster’s parent company Live Nation Entertainment on news of Amazon’s entry, shares are still up more than 50 percent for the year to date.

“I’m not sure anybody is necessarily running into their arms. The data question is definitely a big challenge,” said one rival ticketing executive speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s also not clear to me what problem Amazon is fundamentally solving, and I think it’s still a high bar for them to clear.”

The sports industry is focused on Amazon.

In private conversations over the past several weeks, sports media executives have expressed far more concern about competing for sports rights with the Seattle-based tech giant than any other digital company.

One senior TV executive compared Amazon’s business model to the dual revenue stream that cable channels like ESPN and Fox Sports have used for years to push rights fees higher — but instead of subs and advertising, it’s subs and advertising and e-commerce.

“All Amazon has to do is decide to get more people to Amazon Prime, and those people will order more stuff,” said the executive, who asked for anonymity so that he could speak frankly about a competitor. “Amazon doesn’t care if they order aspirin or toilet paper or onesies. It doesn’t matter to them, so long as they’re ordering stuff from Amazon.”

An executive with one sports property described recent talks where Amazon was particularly aggressive in trying to pick up rights. Amazon wasn’t just looking for streaming rights, the executive said. It wanted to own the whole media package, and it was prepared to pay a premium for those rights. In many cases, Amazon’s position in the sports business mirrors the strategy successful cable channels used when they first started taking sports rights from broadcast channels in the 1980s and 1990s. They bid aggressively high, forcing properties to decide between taking more money or maintaining broadcast audiences. Eventually, most took the money.

Right now, many of the properties contacted for this story are skittish about taking all of their rights off of television, which delivers mass audiences.

But that doesn’t mean some won’t. Sources say Amazon is paying more than $13 million per year for ATP Tour rights in Britain, outbidding the incumbent, Sky. And executives are watching to see if Amazon will be a major bidder when big time NFL, MLB and NHL rights come to market in a few years.

The senior TV executive will be watching closely, but has his doubts Amazon is ready to draw an audience right away. “I just don’t know if it’s going to work. When you put NFL games on Amazon Prime, are people really going to think it’s better than TV?”

Chris Berman knew what he had to do to prepare for the first NFL season in more than three decades where he would not be hosting a Sunday NFL studio show.

Chris Berman will be off the NFL set on Sundays for the first time in more than three decades.
He called his cable company.

It was the middle of August and he was looking to order “NFL Sunday Ticket.” There was only one problem.

“The customer service rep sheepishly said, ‘Well, we don’t have that. You’ll have to call DirecTV,’” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been used to watching eight games at 1 p.m. Part of the fun was being in the room with everybody watching it.”

Berman, who also has DirecTV hooked up to his home, ultimately got

Hitting the links in Northern Ireland over the weekend.
Photo by: ESPN
his “Sunday Ticket” subscription. But the man who has been ESPN’s face of the NFL for 31 years would not be watching it in Week 1. In fact, Berman was not even planning to be in the United States. He was set to play the Royal Portrush golf course in Northern Ireland with seven close friends.

“I have yet to call Verizon to see if I can get the games over there,” he said. “I know I’ll get the soccer scores at least.”

Berman’s friends planned the trip, which runs from Sept. 8-16. They did not schedule it with the NFL in mind. But Berman said the trip will be a good place for him to kick off this NFL season.

“When I’m in one of those pot bunkers and they’re about to kick off, that’s when I’ll miss the fellas,” he said. “Rather than worry about what I’m going to say about the Packers and the Seahawks, I’ll be worried about how I’m going to get the hell out of that pot bunker.”

Berman cultivated an on-screen persona as the ultimate NFL fan. He said he’s excited to recapture some of that. But he also said that because of his wife’s death in May — she died in a car accident in Connecticut — he hasn’t given much thought to how he will react to spending this season away from the studio set that made him famous.

“Because of Kathy’s tragedy, I haven’t sat here agonizing over it,” he said. “[Retired NFL analyst] Tom Jackson tells me that I’m going to enjoy it more each month it goes on. He hasn’t lied to me yet.”

Berman is happy that he still will be involved with the NFL, producing features for ESPN’s various studio shows. On Monday nights he will host a piece that looks back at famous games in “Monday Night Football” history. For ESPN’s first “Monday Night Football” game this season between the Saints and the Vikings, Berman has a piece that looks back on the 2006 Falcons-Saints “Monday Night Football” game, which was the first game at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.

“I fell in love with football a long time ago as a fan at Shea Stadium and then watching all the time,” he said. “For almost 40 years, I’ve been able to see the games — certainly the 30-plus that I was on duty on Sundays. This will reconnect me with how I fell in love with the game as a 10- or 15-year-old. I’m OK with that.”

Holding an oversize bucket of popcorn, the New York Islanders’ Jordan Eberle slowly plucked single kernels and popped them into his mouth, mimicking the GIFs shared across Twitter and other social media networks.

Moments later, he was answering questions: “All dressed chips,” he said when asked his favorite snack food, referring to a flavor popular in Canada. “I could eat a whole bag in one sitting.”

Then he was handed a confetti firecracker to pop into a camera lens.

The Oilers’ Connor McDavid gets ready for his close-up.Please enter image description here.
This was not your usual preseason snack. Eberle was one of 33 players from across the league’s 31 teams who were taking part in the first NHL marketing summit, held by NBC Sports Group at its campus in Stamford, Conn., last Thursday.

NBC has always conducted preseason interviews and photo shoots with players, typically alongside the NHL’s player media tour, which also took place last week at the league’s New York City headquarters. But the new event was a concerted effort to showcase the players’ personalities in more creative ways.

In one of NBC Sports’ studios, Vegas Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury played table tennis with NBC Sports anchor Jeremy Roenick as the two talked about the sport and their hobbies. On the sheet of ice over at the Chelsea Piers sports complex — attached to the NBC Sports campus — Washington Capitals Braden Holtby faced shots from three youth hockey players at once, as well as some trash talk.

It in some ways mimicked the weeklong marketing summit the network has held in West Hollywood, Calif., prior to the last six Olympics. Players participated in activities ranging from a traditional sit-down interview with NBC Sports anchors Liam McHugh or Kathryn Tappen to the more social- and digital-focused round of questioning that Eberle was going through.

“This is all about showcasing the top players in the world in a fun and exciting environment,” said Sam Flood, executive producer and president of products at NBC and NBCSN. “Whether it’s Connor McDavid playing pingpong with Jeremy Roenick, or Patrick Kane on the ice with local youth hockey players, the goal is to highlight the personalities of the NHL’s current and future superstars to fans across the country.”

The content created from the two-day event will be spread across NBCUniversal channels as the season begins on Oct. 4. Interviews will run alongside games featuring the players’ teams on NBCSN. Digital shorts will appear online, and GIFs like the ones created during the sessions that Eberle took part in will be used playfully alongside NHL updates and content on social media.
The summit also allowed the network to capture player content based around coming league tentpole events such as the Winter Classic and All-Star Game. The cost of hosting the summit was not disclosed.

“It’s unbelievably valuable to be able to get the players in so many different lights like this,” said Steve Mayer, NHL chief content officer. “We want our fans to get to know the players even better, and some of that has to be in fun situations. Sometimes it’s those little moments where someone says, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize that guy had that great smile or that sense of humor’ that makes them a fan.”

NBC Sports’ director of consumer engagement marketing, Dan Palla, who was overseeing much of the content creation at the summit, said the network took notice of all the buzzworthy elements of the Nashville Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup Final last year — whether it was the catfish, the anthem singers or the city itself — and is looking to build upon that. “We will always make sure to serve the core audience of the league, but we also want to see if we can do some different things that can reverberate even higher and help grow the game.”

NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire, who was working with the youth players and the NHL stars on the ice, said he was impressed by the excitement the players had for the summit. “All the guys know we need to sell the game together,” he said. “I sent a text to [Chicago Blackhawks President] John McDonough after seeing Patrick Kane out there skating with the kids. This is the exact thing we need to be doing.”