Was Amazon's $50 Million Football Bet Worth It?

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) made a big splash last spring when it decided to pony up $50 million for the global streaming rights to 10 Thursday Night Football games, and one game on Christmas day. Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) only paid $10 million for a similar package the previous season.

Amazon released some numbers around its viewership, and despite limiting viewership to Prime subscribers, it beat Twitter's numbers from last year. Twitter said it had 31.6 million total viewers and averaged 250,000 viewers during any given minute during its 2016 schedule. While Amazon attracted fewer total viewers, just 18.4 million, those viewers were much more engaged. Amazon averaged 310,000 viewers during any given minute of its streams. Amazon's ability to increase average viewership in a season where the NFL notably suffered a ratings decline is rather impressive.

In order to determine whether Amazon got its money's worth, however, it's important to examine what Amazon's goals were with its Thursday Night Football deal.

Expanding Prime Video internationally

Amazon expanded its Prime video service to 200 countries at the end of 2016. Its NFL deal happened just four months later in April. NFL football has global appeal -- not as much as Champions League football, but still -- and Amazon could hold up Thursday Night Football as flagship content as it marketed its new subscription service in international markets.

Amazon also bought ATP tennis rights a few months ago, and it's expressing interest in the Premier League football rights, as well. Both sports have global appeal -- and considerably more appeal internationally than in the U.S.

Of course, Amazon won't tell us whether the strategy to attract new subscribers paid off. The most recent numbers around Prime only tell us that more people streamed video this year than any other year before. The 18.4 million Thursday Night Football streamers may have contributed to that factoid, but we'll never know for sure.

Amazon also says more customers in Mexico streamed the NFL than any other country outside of the U.S. Germany was second, but streamed more minutes than Mexico. Amazon launched a full Prime membership program in Mexico with two-day shipping early last year. Prime has been available in Germany since 2007.

Expand the advertising business

For each NFL game it streamed, Amazon received a handful of advertising slots. It could either keep the slots for itself and advertise its own products like Echo speakers and Kindle tablets, or it could sell them to advertisers. Amazon opted for a mix of both.

But instead of selling the commercial time as a stand-alone offer, Amazon bundled the video ad with its other display ad products. It reportedly charged $2.8 million per ad package. Twitter took a similar approach with its rights the previous year, charging between $1 million and $8 million for ad packages of varying sizes.

Amazon reports its advertising business in its "other" revenue category, which is growing rapidly. It was up 58% year over year in the third quarter, to $1.1 billion. Amazon reported 99% growth in the category in the fourth quarter last year, but growth has been decelerating as the line item gets bigger. Investors should watch for any noticeable impact on the line item to see if Amazon's Thursday Night Football contract produced meaningful advertising revenue.

Without solid data, it's hard to tell whether Amazon's $50 million football bet paid off. Amazon was able to attract a bigger average audience than Twitter, which bodes well for its ad sales. Based on Amazon's earliest releases around Prime Video watch time in 2017, it sounds like football contributed to the record year it just posted. Investors should find out more on the fourth-quarter earnings call when management will surely receive questions about the impact of the deal.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Adam Levy owns shares of Amazon. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Twitter. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.