Up until now, Amazon(AMZN) - Get Report had only been dabbling in live sports.

Along with carrying President Obama's 2016 State of the Union address, President Trump's 2017 inauguration and a concert by hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the world's largest online retailer had streamed the Mr. Olympia bodybuilder competition. Not exactly a major, mainstream sport.

That all changed Tuesday when the NFL announced it awarded Amazon the right to stream 16 Thursday Night Football games for its 2017 season. The deal is said to be $50 million for 10 games. Amazon simply will stream the broadcast from either CBS(CBS) - Get Report  or Comcast's (CMCSA) - Get Report NBC. CBS won't get any money from Amazon but will pick up some incremental dollars from its advertisers. 

An Amazon representative declined comment on the reports.

Importantly, only subscribers to Amazon's Prime program, which costs $10.99 per month or $99 per year, will be able to stream the games. The Prime program, a cornerstone of Amazon's recent surge, affords its members free two-day shipping for most purchases, unlimited streaming of many movies, TV shows and albums, and access to certain Kindle e-books, among other benefits. Analysis of Amazon's revenue data has yielded an estimate of 65 million Prime subscribers.

Amazon has been on a tear, its shares surging more than 57% over the most 12 months. The stock was up 1.6% on Wednesday morning to $921.29. Amazon is trading at an all-time high, sporting an eye-popping market capitalization of about $437 billion.

For both Amazon and the NFL, streaming Thursday Night Football is something of an experiment. The league is eager to get user data about the games and continues to build relationships with technology companies. Twitter(TWTR) - Get Report won the contract to stream Thursday Night Football for the 2016 season. Amazon, meanwhile, wants to get more hands-on experience streaming a major national event.

CBS and NBC are in the middle of a two-year contract to televise the 16 Thursday night games, which began as a seasonlong part of the schedule in 2014.

Viewed along a historical timeline, the NFL-Amazon deal has the makings of a major turning point for television programming. It's not absurd to assume that once the rights to televise the league's other games come up for renewal in 2021 and 2022 that companies such as Amazon, Facebook(FB) - Get Report , Apple(AAPL) - Get Report or Alphabet's (GOOGL) - Get Report Google would be bidders. For CBS, NBC or 21st Century Fox's (FOXA) - Get Report flagship station, losing out on the NFL would be a major body blow. 

It remains unclear, however, whether the NFL will continue with Thursday Night Football. Players don't like the games because they mess with the schedule's traditional rhythm of Sunday to Sunday, and the networks -- CBS, NBC, Fox and Disney's (DIS) - Get Report ESPN -- don't like it because it removes two teams from the Sunday and Monday schedules.

NFL ratings were down in 2016, and while the presidential campaign was one of many factors, Thursday Night Football also has been cited as a reason for the audience decline. For the season, the NFL reported an 8% drop in ratings, with the average game being viewed by 16.5 million people, compared with 17.9 million in 2015.

As for the economics of the deal, think of Amazon Prime as Netflix(NFLX) - Get Report or even cable TV. It's an all-in-one subscription service. Quantifying whether the investment of $50 million for 10 games is warranted is tricky. Sure, Amazon may not get many more viewers than Twitter's approximate audience of 300,000, but it doesn't matter. Amazon wants to give its Prime subscribers -- often the whole family -- yet another reason to continue to subscribe.

Amazon may attract a larger audience than Twitter, but that's secondary to learning more about the value of streaming rights. At present, AT&T's (T) - Get Report DirecTV has exclusive rights to stream games on mobile devices. Its Sunday Ticket subscription service, which it's had since 1994, may be the single biggest reason that DirecTV is still around and is a major reason that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson elected to buy the legacy satellite TV operator in 2015.

We're in the early stages of the Brave New World of sports programming. ESPN's deal for Monday Night Football expires in 2021, and contracts with CBS, NBC and Fox for Sunday action come up for renewal in 2022. Amazon may be waiting. 

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