Fourth in a series examining the Pac-12’s fight for survival following the planned departures of USC and UCLA in the summer of 2024 (links below) …
One of the most important games of the Pac-12 season is scheduled for Thursday night, doesn’t involve Pac-12 teams and, in fact, isn’t even a college matchup.
The NFL’s ‘Thursday Night Football’ makes its debut on Amazon with the Chargers facing the Chiefs in Kansas City.
Amazon has streamed the NFL in previous seasons, those were simulcasts of the FOX broadcast. This week marks the first regular-season NFL game with Amazon as the exclusive rights-holder. It will produce the game and serve as the sole national distributor.
Expect Pac-12 executives and key campus officials to be glued in.
By this time next month, the conference and Amazon could be partners.
Multiple sources in the sports media industry — none of them affiliated with the Pac-12 office or the campuses — have told the Hotline that commissioner George Kliavkoff is serious about a media rights agreement with Amazon.
“George is focused on digital,” a source explained recently — and it wasn’t a reference to ESPN+.
Kliavkoff hinted at that possibility during the Pac-12’s preseason kickoff event in late July, explaining that a deal with one of the major digital media companies was “highly likely.”
The comment was vague enough that it could have been taken as a reference to ESPN’s digital arm. Or to Peacock (NBC) or Paramount+ (CBS). And Kliavkoff hasn’t uttered a public peep about his media strategy since then.
But six weeks later, some clarity has emerged: A multi-year partnership with Amazon is under consideration.
“It’s smart,” a second source said. “They could get more money relative to their real media value with Amazon.”
It’s unclear where the Pac-12’s media negotiations stand. The conference revealed in early July, following the announced departures of USC and UCLA for the Big Ten, that Kliavkoff would begin negotiating a media rights agreement.
As the Pac-12’s existing partners, ESPN and Fox were permitted an exclusive 30-day negotiating window. But no timeline was given for the start of the exclusive window and, at the time, the two networks were immersed in negotiations with the Big Ten.
If Fox, ESPN and the Pac-12 agreed to delay the exclusive window until the Big Ten completed its deal, the clock would not have started until the second half of August — and be coming to a close this week or next.
The exclusive window gives ESPN and Fox a chance to lock up the Pac-12’s rights for another contract cycle, either separately or in combination.
If no agreement is reached, the Pac-12 would take its inventory to the marketplace and negotiate with other companies, including Amazon.
The digital media giant attempted to secure a piece of the Big Ten’s inventory and made what industry sources described as a strong bid. But the Big Ten was hesitant to sign with Amazon due to concerns over visibility.
Amazon Prime is not a mainstream distributor of live sports. It’s not an easy click away for many fans who plop down on the couch and grab the remote. It’s not a natural football viewing destination for 17-year-old recruits who want to watch on their phones.
But that doesn’t mean Prime won’t be mainstream in a few years.
The Pac-12’s next contract cycle is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2024 and could, in theory, run through the end of the decade.
Any partnership with Amazon would come with the underlying presumption that multiple years as the sole national distributor of the NFL’s Thursday package would turn Amazon into a mainstream outlet — if not at the start of the Pac-12’s next contract cycle, then at least by the middle.
In other words, the conference could be taking the approach that it’s better to be early than late to Prime’s mainstream move.
“It’s a risk,” a source said.
Which brings us to Thursday’s debut of the NFL exclusively on Prime. Will the production value reach the NFL’s usual standards? Will the audience come close to matching a typical Thursday broadcast on FOX?
Clearly, the viewership component is a longer-term play. It could be years before the viewership numbers on Prime match those on cable, much less over-the-air television. And they might not get there during the sweep of the 11-year agreement with the NFL.
But visibility is only one piece of the Pac-12’s calculation. The other is cash, and Amazon has plenty of that. It’s paying $1 billion annually for the NFL’s Thursday package and, with a market cap of $1.3 trillion, possesses the wherewithal to make any problems go away.
It could buy the rights to every Power Five football game for a decade by mistake.
A media-rights deal that split inventory between ESPN and Amazon could give the Pac-12 the combination of cash and exposure it craves. But would ESPN agree? That’s one of many unknowns.
From the standpoint of demographics, a partnership with the Pac-12 seems ideal for Amazon. The Seattle-based company views the affluent, tech-savvy West Coast as its target audience. It wouldn’t buy college football broadcast rights to broadcast college football. It would take the plunge as a pathway to access credit cards and sell toilet paper.
And it would pay the Pac-12 as the middleman.
If serious negotiations were to take place, the conference probably wouldn’t agree to a Thursday broadcast window on Amazon following the NFL game. That would require 8:15 p.m. kickoffs — too late for the campuses and fans.
But a Friday night package makes sense: Amazon could promote the Pac-12 game during its NFL broadcast on Thursday and would have a competition-free window at 7 or 7:30 p.m. (Pacific).
Could we see Pac-12 primetime broadcasts on Prime Video?
While far from certain — the media negotiations could go any number of directions — it’s emerging as a distinct possibility.
*** Previously in this series:
Support the Hotline: Receive three months of unlimited access for just 99 cents. Yep, that’s 99 cents for 90 days, with the option to cancel anytime. Details are here, and thanks for your support.