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It’s time to find out if Amazon is ready for the NFL

Pro football’s next streaming experiment starts tonight.

Houston Texans v New England Patriots Jim Rogash / Getty Images

When Amazon won the digital rights to stream 10 NFL games this fall — beating rival bidders like Twitter and Facebook — the NFL was looking to answer an important question: Can NFL football work behind a paywall?

Pro football will begin to find out tonight, when Amazon streams its first NFL football game, a Bears-Packers matchup that Amazon acquired as part of a $50 million deal back in April. (Amazon later secured an 11th, Christmas Day game from the NFL as part of a separate deal.)

The stream will only be available to Amazon Prime members, and will feature the same CBS telecast that viewers will be able to get on their televisions at home for free.

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Thursday’s game also marks the beginning of what will be a season full of comparisons to the streaming partnership the NFL had with Twitter last year. Twitter paid $10 million for a 10-game package in 2016.

Twitter’s NFL streams averaged roughly 266,000 viewers at any given time, a fraction of the audience the NFL gets from television. “Thursday Night Football” games that aired on CBS, for comparison, averaged around 15 million viewers.

It will be challenging for Amazon to beat Twitter’s modest numbers.

Twitter streamed the games for free to anyone online — you didn’t even need a Twitter account, which meant the games were available to (virtually) everyone around the world. But in Amazon’s case, the games are only available to the company’s estimated 85 million Prime subscribers.

Amazon and NFL’s argument: Prime subscribers are much more engaged than random NFL watchers/samplers.

Perhaps. More practically, the NFL has worked hard to improve the matchups for its Thursday night games, which seems to have resulted in better TV ratings. And Bears-Packers seems like a better ratings bet than Bills-Jets, last year’s streaming debut.

Comparing Twitter to Amazon isn’t exactly apples to apples, but that’s also kind of the point: The NFL is using these Thursday night streams to test different distribution models to see what works — and to prove to potential bidders that digital streams are worth paying for.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Amazon was streaming 10 games.

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