Canzano: Will Pac-12 football be delivered by Amazon Prime? Or ESPN?
NFL Thursday Night Football is now on Amazon.
Amazon set up a new customer-service call center a few months ago. It hired and trained thousands of employees who will be on duty tonight to field calls and help customers troubleshoot its newest product — the NFL’s Thursday Night Football.
I’ll bet the Pac-12 Conference tunes in.
The tech company is paying the NFL more than $1 billion for a package of exclusive Thursday-night games this season. The Chargers-Chiefs game is the first of the year. It’s a deviation from the league’s traditional linear-television providers (CBS, NBC and FOX). It’s a strong move into sports by Amazon and a wild experiment by the NFL.
I can’t help but wonder how Amazon, Apple and YouTube might factor in the Pac-12’s current media-rights negotiations. Is it possible the “Conference of Champions” will chase a pile of outside-the-box revenue and go with a streamer?
Or dabble with one at least?
Major League Soccer was faced with a similar dilemma last spring. Deputy Commissioner Gary Stevenson, a former Pac-12 executive, is the president of business for the soccer league. Stevenson had a choice: A) Ink a windfall deal with Apple; or B) Sign for less with ESPN, but bask in the promotional glow of that “Worldwide Leader” platform.
In June, MLS announced a 10-year, $2.5 billion deal with Apple.
Said Stevenson: “It was obvious at that time that there was a transition going on in the world, probably the greatest transition in the way sports media would be distributed since the advent of cable television.”
Andrew Marchand, the New York Post’s sports-media columnist, dropped an interesting tidbit into his podcast this week. Marchand said the Pac-12 and ESPN are “hundreds of millions of dollars apart — not even close” in their current negotiation. Then, Marchand posed a question: “Do one of the digital players get involved with the Pac-12?”
His co-host, John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal, said he’d be “gobsmacked” if ESPN and the Pac-12 didn’t do some kind of deal. But I left their talk thinking about what the Pac-12 wants to be and how the conference’s media rights fit into that.
The Pac-12 could settle into third or fourth or fifth position among the major conferences and sign a traditional media-rights deal. Or it could do something that nobody else in college football is doing — go big with Amazon and/or Apple. Or maybe the conference blends one of the streaming services with ESPN. At the very least, the threat of going with Amazon/Apple fosters some badly needed leverage for the Pac-12.
Would the conference really do what MLS just did? Sell the primary rights to a streaming service? Or maybe just sell the current Pac-12 Networks inventory to a streaming partner?
David Carter, a USC sports-business professor, told me on Thursday that he thinks it’s going to take more time for the bulk of sports fans to migrate toward streaming. But he doesn’t blame the various leagues for kicking the tires.
“It works for a lot of folks now and it will be common-place maybe 10 years from now,” he said. “To go too quickly toward streaming you’re going to leave a lot of money on the table and if you move too slowly you’re also going to leave a lot of money on the table.”
Marchand is based on the East Coast. He’s well sourced, particularly with ESPN. If I’m reading the tea leaves, I think ESPN may be doing some public negotiating, just like it did late in the Big Ten negotiations. Still, I asked around. Several Pac-12 ADs I contacted didn’t want to go on the record. They’re leaving the negotiating to Commissioner George Kliavkoff.
Bob Thompson, the former Fox Sports Networks president, told me he felt like it was too soon for the Pac-12 to go all-in with a streaming service.
He pointed out that Amazon Prime is only available in 42 percent of internet households in the country. Amazon Prime Video accounts for only about 3.5 percent of all video minutes consumed across all platforms. Netflix, by comparison, is around 7.5 percent. Meanwhile, traditional broadcast television and pay-TV account for 60-65 percent of video minutes consumed.
The Pac-12 already has a Pacific Time Zone issue. The late kickoffs affect the brands of the programs. Would the conference compound that by adding a potential distribution issue? Or is money all that matters now?
Said Thompson: “My prediction is that if they do this, the commissioner, conference, ADs and presidents will get roasted by some constituents and praised by others for being cutting edge.”
Three quick things:
The College Football Playoff is expanding to 12 teams. Given that the Pac-12 suddenly has better access to the playoff, I’m left wondering if all that matters now to the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors is media-rights revenue.
If the Pac-12 sells its rights to Amazon/Apple, those two tech companies could still sublicense the games to networks (FOX, ESPN, etc.). That could be a win-win, but it gets complicated.
The Pac-12 + ACC “loose partnership” I’ve been writing about for a couple of months is still out there, too. ESPN may covet a series of annual crossover, non-conference games between the two conferences. The games could be played in the NFL stadiums in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and others near the ACC footprint. If the Pac-12 signs with Amazon/Apple, ESPN might still come in to carry this inventory.
Starting this season, the NFL’s Thursday Night Football can only be found on Amazon Prime, unless you live in the home market of the teams playing. Al Michaels will be on the broadcast for Amazon. He’s 77. He’ll be joined by Kirk Herbstreit, who is traditionally a college football analyst. They’ve never shared a broadcast booth before.
Tonight, is literally a game changer in the NFL viewing world.
Again, Thompson believes it’s too soon for the Pac-12 to go all-in with a streaming partner. Also, let’s remember, this is a negotiation. The aim may be to rile us all up with the threat of non-traditional ideas while the key parties regroup and drill down on a traditional deal. But it’s possible the Pac-12 may do what MLS did and what the NFL is doing with tonight’s broadcast — something very new.
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