How Al Michaels is helping Amazon Prime’s NFL game

Veteran sports broadcaster Al Michaels has a 20-year-old answering machine in his Brentwood home, and it will likely never be thrown out. The device contains several messages from the late Dodgers announcer Vin Scully who died Aug. 2.

Michaels, 77, spent his early years in Brooklyn, where he first listened to radio broadcasts of the Dodgers games with Scully in the booth. The team, its legendary announcer and a young aspiring sportscaster all moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Michaels never stopped listening.

“I learned a lot from Vin — he was the voice in my ear,” Michaels said during a recent conversation over breakfast in his backyard. “He never sounded like he didn’t want to be there. He could take a run-of-the-mill game and make it a great listen. And he could take a great game and make it an iconic listen.”

Michaels aims to apply the lessons he learned from Scully to the next phase in his durable, historic career. This week, he joins Kirk Herbstreit in the broadcast booth for Amazon Prime Video’s “Thursday Night Football,” the opening contest in the first NFL TV package shown exclusively on a streaming video service.

Since the 2017 season, Prime Video has streamed games simultaneously with a broadcast network and the NFL Network on cable. But this season through 2032, Prime Video will be the only way to watch 15 Thursday contests in most of the country. The games — for which Amazon will pay $1 billion per season — will be available on broadcast TV only in the two local markets of the teams playing.

While the younger viewers the NFL wants to reach have migrated to streaming platforms, football remains a powerhouse on traditional TV. Last year NFL games accounted for 75 of the 100 most watched programs, according to Nielsen.

For Amazon, whose Culver City studio recently premiered its landmark “The Lord of the Rings” TV series, acquiring the rights to “Thursday Night Football” was a “once-in-a-decade opportunity to create a new destination for Prime Video users,” said Marie Donoghue, vice president of global sports video for Amazon.

“We also have so many Prime members in the U.S. who have never used Prime Video,” Donoghue added. “Some of them don’t know they have it.”

Many fans, especially older ones, will be streaming NFL games for the first time. Amazon expects the presence of Michaels — having broadcast “Monday Night Football” for 20 seasons on ABC and the last 16 years at NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” — to provide immediate familiarity for those getting used to the technology.

“I think Amazon wanted to prove that we’re playing with the big boys,” said Michaels. “They want to make it classy. We have to have a comfort level for the fans who want to watch the game and not go astray.”

A major appeal of video streaming is the expansion of consumer choice. Amazon is providing that too on “Thursday Night Football,” as Prime Video will offer alternative streams of the game over the course of the season. Four of the games will feature YouTube stars Dude Perfect, a sports comedy group. (“My teenaged grandchildren know all about them,” said Michaels.)

The team of Andrea Kremer and Hannah Storm that Prime Video used in the past will also be back for two games, presenting the contests with a more informal style akin to the Manning brothers’ simulcast of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

Alternative streams, more of which will be announced during the season, are a way to attract new and younger fans. But for those who have watched football for years and want to feel connected to the game they already know and love, Michaels will be there.

“There might be people coming to Amazon who are skeptical as to what the experience will be,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the Olin’s Sports Business Program at Washington University in St. Louis. “Michaels adds an extra degree of gravitas. It’s a name people trust.”

The situation is similar to 1994, when Fox, still an upstart in the TV business, shocked the sports world by poaching the rights to the NFL’s National Football Conference games from CBS. Sports TV purists sniffed, suggesting Bart Simpson would be reporting from the sidelines. Fox responded by recruiting the longtime announcing team of John Madden and Pat Summerall, giving its nascent sports division instant credibility.

Michaels is gratified that Amazon recognized the equity he has built up with the audience over 36 seasons. He did not leave “Sunday Night Football” by choice, as the network made it clear that Mike Tirico was the future of the broadcast.

“I wasn’t happy, but I knew it well in advance,” Michaels said. “I didn’t want to retire. I still loved doing it. I felt as energized as ever.”

Amazon approached Michaels after the end of the 2020-21 season about joining its new team and signed him earlier this year, part of a major shuffle of the big name NFL announcers in the offseason. (Michaels signed an emeritus deal with NBC in May and is expected to show up on its NFL postseason coverage).

Two men seated side by side wearing yellow suit jackets with microphones in hand.

Al Michaels withformer broadcasting partner John Madden on “Monday Night Football” in Denver.

(Craig Sjodin/ABC/Walt Disney Television)

On the surface, Michaels does not appear to be the kind of guy who welcomes change. He has been married to his wife Linda since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. They have resided in the same home since 1986. He claims to have never eaten a vegetable and has no plans to start.

But throughout his career, Michaels has learned to swim with the tide. He called a total of 60 minutes of hockey before he was assigned to the sport during ABC’s coverage of the 1980 Winter Olympics. He went on to deliver the play-by-play for the U.S. hockey team’s gold medal win over the Soviet Union — an unfathomable upset — and sealed it with the line “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The coda secured his place in TV sports history.

Bob Iger, former chairman of the Walt Disney Co., worked alongside Michaels at ABC Sports in the 1970s.

“I carried his bags occasionally to events,” Iger said in a recent interview. Iger recalls the network crew’s celebration at a Lake Placid, N.Y., restaurant hotel after the hockey telecast aired where everyone realized they witnessed an event for the ages.

“Al walked into the restaurant and the whole place stood up — a standing ovation,” Iger said. “That’s when I knew he had gone to a completely different level.”

There were times when Michaels was called on to handle breaking news stories. He became a natural disaster reporter, relaying on-site details from San Francisco’s Candlestick Park when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit before the third game of the 1989 World Series.

In June 1994, he weighed in alongside ABC News journalists when O.J. Simpson and his friend Al Cowlings were in Simpson’s white Bronco being chased by police (both men were tennis partners with Michaels).

A team of hockey players celebrating on ice.

Michaels called the U.S. hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

(AP)

Flagging ratings at “Monday Night Football” in the late 1990s pulled Michaels into network TV experimentation. He worked the 2000 and 2001 seasons in the booth with comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Dennis Miller. They became good pals, but Michaels said Miller’s rarefied references to Sylvia Plath and Cristo tested him. “I had Excedrin headache number 306 after every game,” he said.

But Michaels’ willingness to dive in whenever bosses threw something new at him likely contributed to his longevity.

“He’s not risk-averse,” said Iger. “And he manages through the change because he works really hard.”

For Michaels, adapting is part of the job. “When you sign up for something, you do it,” he said. “You can fight it, but that’s just a waste of energy. You’ve got to find a way to make it work.”

The span of Michaels’ career and the array of larger-than-life colleagues he worked with, including Madden, Simpson, Howard Cosell and Caitlyn Jenner, provide him with an endless supply of anecdotes. He is like a human search engine, able to recount events and previous games with complete details every time — a valuable skill to have during a blowout game.

“A lot of people are interested in personalities and other stuff besides rotating zones,” he said.

When Scully died, Michaels joined the collective embrace of Dodgers fans who grew up with his idol. A network sportscaster since the mid 1970s, when Michaels first put on a canary yellow blazer for ABC Sports, he never experienced the deep bond fans have with their longtime local broadcasters. His relationship with the audience is more complicated.

Michaels knows disappointed Seattle Seahawk fans associate his voice with the Super Bowl XLIX victory snatched away by New England Patriot Malcolm Butler’s goal line interception. His call of “wide right” for Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV will never make him a big favorite in western New York.

It’s why he cherishes his joyful call at the 1980 Winter Olympics. “That’s the only time in my career when 99.9% of the audience is going the same way I’m going,” he said.

But Michaels knows he is fortunate to be the voice of a sport that even with its problems in recent years has only strengthened its hold on the American public. He doesn’t buy the idea that fans turned away due to on-field social protests by NFL players, a theory behind the ratings dip the league experienced in 2017 and 2018.

“We went from number one down to number one,” he said. “The margin between one and two was even greater. There were a bunch of people saying, ‘I’m not going to watch again.’ That was a lot of noise. Those same people are probably watching.”

Michaels believes the key to the NFL’s dominance is its transformation into a “365-day-a-year conversation.” The NFL draft — once the domain of football junkies — is a TV ratings hit airing across several networks and streaming platforms. The NFL Scouting Combine for college talent, free agency machinations and stars such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers providing celebrity gossip fodder make the league hard to avoid even in the offseason.

Michaels believes the NFL is the best unscripted drama on television. Spending so many years telling those stories has wired him to handle the unknown, even a pioneering role at Prime Video.

“I look at this as exciting and mysterious,” he said. “It’s good to have a little uncertainty.”

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