A defensive coordinator trying to put together a game plan to stop Justin Herbert or Patrick Mahomes has an easier task than the NFL trying to put together the schedule for Thursday night football.
There’s trying to put together intriguing matchups, only four teams can play multiple Thursday games, and there are the considerations of who and where teams are playing the week before because of the short turnaround.
Add into it a new television partner paying $1.2 billion a season to carry those games for 11 years, and the pressure is ratcheted up even more.
Yet, despite all the hurdles. Amazon Prime Video is pleased about its slate of games for its first season as the exclusive carrier of “Thursday Night Football.” The Los Angeles Chargers-Kansas City Chiefs matchup on Sept. 15 was announced two weeks ago, while the remaining 14 games were unveiled on Thursday as part of the full rollout of the NFL regular-season schedule.
“We’re very excited. We think we have some can’t-miss games. A lot of these are all about the matchup,” said Marie Donoghue, Amazon’s vice president of Global Sports Video.
Donoghue said Amazon made its first formal pitch to the league’s broadcasting department the week before the Super Bowl to let the NFL know about its focus and priorities. As with all of the networks, discussions continued up until the final schedule was set.
Even though Amazon is the league’s first new broadcast partner since Fox in 1994, Donoghue is familiar with the process as an executive VP at ESPN for 19 years. Jeffrey Kaiser, Amazon’s head of US sports programming, was with NFL Network for five years.
Hans Schroeder, the executive vice president of NFL Media, also noted there was a little bit of a familiarity process with Amazon because it had partnered with CBS, Fox and NFL Network on a tri-cast model for Thursday night games for five seasons.
Still, there was a little bit of a “getting to know you” period for both sides.
“There’s a lot that everyone was going through for the first time, but there was great collaboration and cooperation between the teams,” he said. “I think we’ve put ourselves in a really good position for a strong launch of TNF.”
The package gets off to a strong start. After Chargers-Chiefs, Pittsburgh goes to Cleveland on Sept. 22 which could be a matchup between Steelers’ first-round pick Kenny Pickett and the Browns’ Deshaun Watson, who was acquired in a mega-trade with Houston.
On Sept. 29, it’s a matchup of 2020 first-round quarterback draft selections when Miami and Tua Tagovailoa head to Cincinnati to face the defending AFC champion Bengals and Joe Burrow. The following week has two signal callers in new places with Indianapolis’ Matt Ryan visiting Denver and Russell Wilson.
“You’ve really got a long and strong runway of great games, hopefully, that help build that behavior and customer awareness that Thursdays are now on Amazon,” Schroeder said.
The headline game on the schedule is Oct. 27, the second matchup between Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady. Other games of note are Tennessee at Green Bay (Nov. 17), Buffalo at New England (Dec. 1), Las Vegas at the Los Angeles Rams (Dec. 8) and Dallas at Tennessee (Dec. 29).
“I was really pleasantly surprised. I think there’s some real major attractions on this schedule,” executive producer Fred Gaudelli said. “The quarterback matchup is so critical because good quarterback play usually means good competitive football. I did Brady against Jackson when Brady was with New England a few years back (on `Sunday Night Football’). That’s a great quarterback matchup just because of the contrasting styles.”
Every team will play on Thursday, but the New York Giants, Minnesota and Detroit will not appear on the Amazon package. All three are playing on Thanksgiving. Buffalo and New England are also playing on Thanksgiving before meeting each other the next week.
As with every league partner, Amazon also will have a preseason game when San Francisco faces Houston on Aug. 25.
NFL Broadcasting vice president Mike North said during a conference call on Friday that even though this is Amazon’s first year, this slate of games is similar to what CBS and Fox would have received in past years when they had the Thursday night package.
“Do you want the big brands against each other and create a couple of A vs. A games, knowing that might bring with it a couple of B vs. B games, or do you want a steady diet of A-minus and B-plus games? I think we tried to kind of find that balance this year, not dissimilar from how we would have done it in the past, North said. ”Putting the good games up early in the season like that, hopefully, it’s going to help change fan behavior and find their way to Amazon Prime.”
Donoghue and Schroeder said there will be plenty of opportunities to notify people where and how to tune into the games. They will also be available on stations in the participating teams’ markets, which is the same practice when the contests are on ESPN and NFL Network.
While Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit have been announced as the broadcasting team, along with Tony Gonzalez as an analyst on pregame, halftime and postgame shows, the process of putting together the rest of the team is proceeding, including the sideline reporter.
Gaudelli spent a couple days earlier this month meeting with Amazon executives in Los Angeles, and said getting everything together continues to progress, even though the first game is three months away.
“I can tell you, people are going to have options and enhancements that they haven’t had with NFL games,” he said. “And, for someone like me that’s been at this for a while, it’s just been a great jolt of energy.”
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