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2 January 2020

Amazon’s comforting Christmas Premier League coverage masked its long-term ambitions

Football rights help tap into data about older demographics that can help the retailer sell other goods and services.

By Daniel Curtis

Football, especially the Premier League, always seems to move at a lightning pace. It’s in that spirit that Amazon hosting the Premier League for the first time is already old news.

If that says a lot about how we as consumers devour content on-demand with speed and impatience, it also says a lot about how little of a culture shock Amazon’s coverage truly was.

Balls were kicked. Goals were scored. People in nice coats stood and spoke about the football in the freezing cold.

Its coverage began on the 3 December, marking the first of two batches, but by the time Amazon was ending its second round of fixtures on the 27th, following successful Boxing Day coverage, all the attention revolved around VAR drama in Wolves vs Manchester City. The newness of Amazon being among the TV coverage big boys had long since faded.

Much of that feels intentional. When it came to on-screen presentation, it was a very conservative showing from the tech giant, making its arrival less auspicious than it otherwise would have been.

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With Gabby Logan, Alan Shearer, Jermaine Jenas and Guy Mowbray, Amazon essentially co-opted the BBC’s team to the extent that Mr Match of the Day himself felt left out.

There was a lick of new paint: live statistics; the option to turn off commentary; each match simulcasted alongside other contemporaneous matches. But such bells and whistles would likely only impress a viewer who had never been within an inch of a younger relative playing FIFA or Football Manager. 

While the decision to not reinvent the wheel – or ball? – makes perfect sense from a content perspective, there’s also something else going on here.

In packaging its presentation in a neat, Christmas-themed bow of traditionalism, Amazon masks its real intent. It moves into the market with the intent of a disruptor but the air of an established agent, creating a sense of comfort and reassurance in the minds of sceptical fans – a sense of comfort and reassurance that allows Amazon leeway to get to what it’s really interested in: data.

Now let’s back up a minute. This isn’t some kind of cautionary warning from dystopian sci-fi. Amazon’s designs on data are, by this point, well known. And in truth, it’s convenient enough that most people know and, well, don’t much care.

Amazon created its monolithic status on a hotbed of data accrued from cheap book sales. That platform allowed them to move into other spheres, creating its current form.

Recent news that Amazon has received free access to data about the NHS in a deal with the government therefore should shock no-one. 

This form of market data is precisely what it is after – which is why securing the Premier League rights as a data trove is far less important than its on-the-pitch offering.

The Premier League has a special role to play in its strategy, argues LSE’s Professor Charlie Beckett, Director of Polis and the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission. He sees the rights package as a route into an older, British demographic into which Amazon may not have tapped before.

“They need shortcuts,” Professor Beckett explains a few hours before he watches his club West Ham play away at Wolves.

“It gives them fantastic new customers,” he says. “Obviously Amazon Prime is a big profit maker for Amazon, but this brings in a whole new bunch of people who wouldn’t necessarily be their key demographic, and of course their goal is partly to get people to sign-up to Amazon Prime, and also to think of Amazon Prime as more than just a way of buying stuff.”

In this context, Amazon’s traditional football offering makes sense – the ultimate trojan horse to entice a very passionate demographic to its services.

It’s a model that has been tried before – most successfully by Amazon’s own rivals in this new arena (no pun intended), Sky, which used the interest attracted by its formative Premier League offering as a platform for further growth.

But in contrast with a relatively big company like Sky in the 90s, this move carries far less of a risk for a company of Amazon’s global heft.

“For Amazon, buying the Premier League rights was like buying lunch. That wasn’t a big deal for them. It’s not that they’re gonna get profit out of this. It’s a tiny part of their overall investment.”

Media, Beckett says, is “tiny compared to just about anything else. Pharmaceuticals; food; health insurance – they’re all much, much bigger business and the data that you get from people allows you to sell those other services to people much more efficiently. That’s what the real goal is.”

He points to Amazon’s ever-growing suite of content. The Premier League sits next to ATP and WTP tennis, where every match is simulcasted live, not dissimilar to its fashion of broadcasting the Premier League. Beckett cites Amazon’s acquisition of the Washington Post too. 

“That was again pocket money for him,” the “him” referring to Amazon’s figurehead, Jeff Bezos. “But that was actually quite an interesting place for him to gather data. The other companies are gonna find that really difficult to compete with.”

So where do we go from here? If data is the future, what’s the real-world impact? He uses an old analogy to describe the arrival of the new.

“The great billionaires who built the railroads weren’t just interested in trains – they were interested in the fact that they were transforming the real estate value of the land alongside the rails. So it’s a second-order effect: that data enables you in a sense to build the railroads of the future economy.”

Clearly then, this goes beyond football. Football, tennis, TV – these are all just conduits for Amazon’s pursuit of sign-ups and data.

That it is already claiming this as a major success is telling. As the dust settled following the final day of its first raft of matches, Amazon has gone on record to celebrate a record number of sign-ups since Amazon Prime launched in the UK in 2007.

Not only does this do much for Amazon’s own subscriber count, especially in a significant market such as the UK, but it also becomes noteworthy when considering what the knock-on effect of those new users are: purchases, both big and small as enticed by Prime’s free delivery, bringing in further revenue; data about what exactly each user buys, watches, listens to; personal information and demographic data. The list goes on. 

Yes, it’s alarmingly easy to sound like an apocalyptic, troglodyte naysayer when it comes to tech. That’s complicated further when dealing with a lifeblood that’s as emotive and moneyed as football, where hearts often rule heads, and a quaint sense of traditionalism often clouds the real vision of our multinational business that we call footy. But if nothing else, it’s important that all football fans know what’s at stake in future when we sit down full of Boxing Day leftovers to consume our daily footballing bread.

Long gone are the simple days of product on the grass, consumer in the stands. Now we are the product in someone else’s sport – namely, a battle for “the future economy” in a market contested by Apple, Facebook, and Google. Like the frenetic speed of Premier League football, that’s a game that shows no sign of slowing. 

No, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not the second coming either, despite the festive season. But it is food for thought as we curl up to watch our latest dose of footballing drama.

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