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How the NFL’s most recent controversy is alienating some of its broadcast partners

Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL desperately want the league's partnership with Amazon — which began before last season — to be a rousing success.Dave Richard/Associated Press

In the years since Roger Goodell became NFL commissioner in August 2006, the following gradually emerged as a reliable rule of thumb:

If the league is fully determined to do something — and that range can go from creating a generic Super Bowl logo to angling its way into the best graces of a particular broadcast partner to, oh, allowing public opinion to determine the consequences for rules misdemeanors — it’s best to be very skeptical of its motives.

Fortunately, the motivations are obvious with the most recent controversy. The NFL desperately wants its partnership with Amazon — which began before last season, when the streaming service and the league agreed on a $13 billion deal to stream Thursday night games through the 2033 season — to be a rousing and even more lucrative success, even if it alienates more established league broadcast partners in the present.


Nielsen Media, which is long trusted with the viewership data it provides because of its independence, recently announced that it plans to include first-party data in its audience measurements for streaming services, most notably Amazon. First-party data is information that the services have collected themselves from their viewers.

The NFL is on board with this decision, and for obvious reasons. It is going to allow for Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football” to report higher ratings and viewership numbers, because its data differs from what Nielsen gathers, thus allowing for higher advertising rates.

Last year, Nielsen reported that “Thursday Night Football” averaged 9.58 million viewers on Amazon Prime. Amazon reported that its own data determined that viewership was approximately 18 percent higher, with the number at 11.3 million viewers after its first-party data was included for the 15-game slate.

During the 2022 season, Amazon offered occasional rebuttals to reports of Nielsen ratings on individual “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts, citing its own first-party data.


Now the NFL is publicly in Amazon’s corner, while Nielsen is at least giving the impression of sacrificing its nonpartisan image to appease the league and a certain crucial streaming partner. Executives at other networks that broadcast NFL games are somewhere between frustrated and furious, arguing that at the very least there is now a perception that the playing field is uneven.

“Nielsen is about to sacrifice its most valuable attribute — impartiality — to benefit one client, one program, and one content supplier,” posted Michael Mulvihill, president of insights and analytics at longtime NFL broadcast partner Fox Sports, on Aug. 28. “Reckless, wrongheaded, and a slap in the face to the largest Nielsen clients and NFL partners.”

The NFL seems desperate to make the best of its partnership with Amazon.Jennifer Stewart

The same day, Flora Kelly, vice president of ESPN Research, offered something of a heads-up for NFL fans who take an interest in the viewership numbers. “This Amazon-only Nielsen adjustment creates an apples-to-oranges comparison between them and other NFL media rights partners for this season,” she posted. “This is very important context for everyone to remember as we head into the NFL season.”

During a conference call on Aug. 29, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus offered similar sentiments. “A fair and accurate audience measurement across all platforms, as you know, is absolutely vital to our industry,” McManus said. “Anything that is not impartial and unbiased is unacceptable to us. I must say that we think it’s extremely odd and unfortunate that different rules are suddenly applying to one platform.”


The advocacy group Video Advertising Bureau blasted Nielsen in a statement, accusing it of pandering to Amazon by agreeing to include first-party data. Nielsen pushed back, saying in a statement that “we wholeheartedly object to those accusations.”

For now, the Amazon/Nielsen plan awaits approval from the Media Ratings Council, a regulatory body that accredits media data measurement companies, but it certainly seems like it will go through. If the other league broadcast partners want someone to blame, it’s never a bad idea to assume Goodell is behind it and work from there.

Nix has left ESPN

Wendi Nix announced this past week that she has left ESPN. “Exactly 17 years ago, I walked into ESPN wide-eyed and excited,” she wrote in a post on Instagram. “This week, I walk out the same way. Grateful, but equally excited about the next chapter.” Nix was not laid off, but her contract was not renewed. Before joining ESPN, Nix worked at Ch. 7, NESN, and Fox Sports New England (before it became NBC Sports Boston) . . . We give NESN a lot of grief around here, but it should be noted that Tom Caron was one of the voices that, as Mookie Betts reclaimed Fenway Park as his own territory during the Dodgers’ series win last weekend, hit the Red Sox with blunt criticism for trading Betts more than three years ago. “How did you let this guy get away?” Caron said after Sunday’s game. “He should have been the cornerstone of the franchise.” Maybe that’s not exactly as bold as, oh, demanding that Chaim Bloom be traded back to the Rays for three scuffed baseballs, but it’s the truth, and Caron didn’t hesitate to deliver it.


Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.