One of the lesser known but more frequently thumbed tomes on my bookshelf is something called The Premier League Handbook. Published in the summer of 1992 before the launch of a zippy new competition called the FA Premier League and competitively priced at £3.99, it’s a nostalgic and richly comic artefact, a sepia-tinted window into the hoopla and razzmatazz that greeted English football’s brave new dawn.
And so in among the usual season previews (Dean Saunders and Jason Dozzell were among the “players to watch” that year) was a six-page feature on an upstart young broadcaster called Sky Sports, which was promising to reinvent the way we watched football and not the least reticent about it. Sky, we were told, would bring with it “space-age gadgetry” and “computer graphics”. Tension would be heightened by – and I quote – “a clock running constantly in one corner of the screen”. It was, in so many ways, a more innocent age.
Even the opening night of BT Sport in 2013 had the heft of a grand television event, accompanied by a lavish big-budget launch, months of feverish advance speculation and a panting, simpering Jake Humphrey. By contrast, those present to witness English football’s latest new dawn may barely have noticed the difference.
Amazon Prime Video’s first foray into live Premier League football felt like the softest of soft launches: the same teams, the same players, the same presenters, the same commentators, with just a little added buffering.
As Gabby Logan at Turf Moor and Eilidh Barbour at Selhurst Park introduced their respective live streams on the stroke of 7pm, one word was notable by its curious absence. Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t hear the word “Amazon” mentioned on either broadcast all night. The branding was extremely subtle, the studio sparse and largely undecorated, the Fifa 20-esque graphics inoffensively styled, the introductions straight to the point. A standard aerial shot of the ground, some words about the packed festive calendar and then straight into the team news.
The entire operation appeared to have been calibrated to cause as few qualms as possible. Such has been the thirst for familiar faces that according to reports Amazon has signed up 73 commentators, presenters and pundits for its two rounds of Premier League coverage. I’m not sure I could even name 73 pundits without throwing in a few dead ones but if the intention was to offer the illusion of continuity, then for the most part it worked.
At Burnley v Manchester City, Alan Shearer, Nigel de Jong and Roberto Martínez were all clad soberly in battleship grey. At Crystal Palace v Bournemouth, the refreshing erudition of Eni Aluko was neatly diluted by the reassuring equivocation of Jermaine Jenas. “It’s a game that both teams will be trying to win,” he declared from the gantry. Customers who viewed Jenas also bought: water filters, clothes pegs, the latest Coldplay album.
Why had Amazon gone to such lengths to airbrush itself from its own live broadcast? Perhaps because, on some level, it is banking on the fact we don’t really care who is showing our live football. That this jostling marketplace of corporate branding largely goes over our heads. And for a new player with an established core business, the low-key approach certainly appears to favour it: come for the Merseyside derby, stay for a set of kettlebells and the new Jack Reacher. As long as the stream works – granted, this wasn’t the case for everyone – and as long as the presentation is of sufficient room-temperature competence, perhaps everything else is just window dressing.
And indeed, just a couple of clicks away from the main feed lay a glimpse of just where Amazon may be taking this. Squirreled away on a page called “Audio Languages” was an option to turn off the commentary entirely by selecting the “Stadium Atmosphere” feed. The effect was immediately startling. Jefferson Lerma chugged away in near silence. Wilfried Zaha drifted from touchline to touchline entirely unencumbered by comment. It felt like peering into a weird, noiseless future. Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that Jeff Bezos likes to start meetings at Amazon with half an hour of complete silence.
This, in many ways, is how Amazon implants itself in our lives: subtly, seamlessly, insidiously. It appears and it disappears at the same time. First it takes over your bookshelf. Then your music player. Then your food cupboard and the items in your drawers. Then your evenings in front of the television. Self-worth gets delivered promptly to your door within one working day. It’s all so easy, so frictionless, you don’t notice the 30-day trial you forgot to cancel, the data you’re giving away for free, the factory workers denied toilet breaks, the small high street bookshop with closing down signs in the windows.
In many ways, it’s a form of sportswashing as stealthy and cynical as any nation-state could dream up. Like any large corporation trying to monetise your love of football, Amazon is not doing this for love of the game. Football is the conduit, the glossy leafleting campaign, the free cheese samples, the sweets placed tantalisingly by the till. Would I like Amazon to provide a more reliable stream and some more incisive analysis? Yes. But on balance, I think I’d probably rather it just paid more tax.