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How many will tune in for Chargers-Chiefs tonight?

Chris Simms and Mike Florio prep for an early Week 2 showdown between Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert as the "machine" of a young QB looks to keep rolling.

Thirty-five years after the NFL moved games to cable for the first time ever, the league has exported a major weekly broadcast package to the latest new frontier in television -- not television at all.

The streaming evolution/revolution continues tonight, when the league’s newest weekly trend, Thursday Night Football, becomes the exclusive property of Amazon Prime Video. The NFL decided to christen the S.S. Bezos with Chargers at Chiefs, a critical, early-season AFC West game.

The question remains whether enough people will watch. Amazon reportedly told potential advertisers that it will get 12.5 million viewers per game. That almost certainly will not happen; multiple industry sources believe that the best of the Amazon games in 2022 will draw maybe 5-7 million viewers.

Whatever the number, Nielsen will measure streaming consumption for the first time. So we’ll see (eventually) the actual numbers as to who tunes in.

It still seems as if not enough has been done to make enough NFL fans aware of the seismic shift from three-letter over-the-air network to six-letter pay-for-play streamer. (Not that long ago, the NFL was defending its permanently suspended blackout rule with a clunky argument that shadowy “Pay-TV lobbyists” were hoping to “charge fans for games they currently watch for free.” Which, as of tonight, is officially beginning.) But consider this. When the NFL launched its first ESPN package in 1987, 45.2 million homes had the four-letter network. As of 2022, more than 150 million Amazon Prime users are located in the United States.

Regardless, does the average NFL fan who would have in any other year flipped the dial to the local Fox affiliate know that tonight’s game can be seen only on Amazon Prime Video? And will the average NFL fan be willing or able to ensure that their preferred TV can show the game in a quick and easy way?

Amazon has devoted major internal resources to the effort; ads for the game have taken over the website’s home page. But anyone who regularly goes to Amazon likely knows (if they even care) that Amazon will be broadcasting NFL games. Likewise, ardent NFL fans are aware of that fact, too.

The league, trying both to be a good partner and to advance a strong self-interest in having as many people as possible watch NFL games, has enlisted its paid staff of reporters and analysts to promote the new home of Thursday Night Football, by using their personal social-media platforms for posting graphics that promote the game. (We’ve obtained a copy of the email sent to the on-air talent containing the request/mandate.) But anyone who follows the various on-air NFL Network personalities on Twitter already knows (or should know) that Thursday night games have moved to Amazon. Having the “talent” shill for those who pay them won’t do much to get more people to suddenly pivot to Amazon.

Sorry, to pivot to “Prime Video.” Yes, the preferred name for the TNF destination is “Prime Video,” with “Amazon” not mentioned at all.

The league also wants its paid staff to promote that the game will be available on NFL+, an in-house streaming service that (as we hear it) is falling far short of the league’s expectations when it comes to the generation of subscribers and revenue.

For Thursday Night Football on Amazon (sorry, Prime Video), the revenue isn’t the issue. The league will receive the same giant sack of cash it always does. In the past, however, the league got both millions of dollars and millions of eyeballs. At least in the short term, the eyeballs won’t be there like they used to be. In time, the audience surely will grow.

Here’s the real question. When streaming fully matures and traditional TV goes the way of the T-Rex, what will the ceiling be for a live NFL game? Will it be 20 million? 15 million? 10 million?

The process of getting to that ceiling starts tonight, with a game that would easily attract more than 40 million total eyeballs (the cyclops demographic would knock that number down a bit) if it were in the many millions of homes that can quickly and easily access Fox.