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Marie Donoghue’s Prime Directive? Building a Global Sports Media Empire

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
The Prime Video VP speaks with Boardroom about building up the brand from an upstart into a major player with an all-in approach uniting content, tech, and product.

In just a few short years, Amazon and Prime Video have emerged as a major sports media rights player in the never-ending global content wars.

In December, Prime Video completed its first season as the exclusive home of NFL‘s Thursday Night Football as part of an 11-year deal at $1 billion per season that made it the league’s first all-streaming package. It owns the rights to the UEFA Champions League in Germany and Italy and will begin streaming its games in the UK next year. From the French Open and soccer’s Ligue 1 in France, the NBA in Brazil, the most recent World Baseball Classic in Japan, a package of WNBA games including the Commissioner’s Cup final, the Seattle Storm, New York Yankees, and more, it’s safe to say that Amazon has made serious waves in the industry in short order.

That ascent is spearheaded by Marie Donoghue, Prime Video’s Vice President of Global Sports Video, where she’s built a team and an infrastructure essentially from scratch upon joining the company from ESPN in August 2018.

As someone who always enjoyed having her say in the conversion at the intersection of content, technology, and product, Donoghue was tasked with laying out why Amazon should go all-in on sports after briefly dipping a toe into the space.

“There was a blank canvas, being able to start literally from scratch with respect to the sports business,” Donoghue told Boardroom over Zoom in March. “I got to build the team from the bottom up, so it was especially exciting. Amazon is so customer-focused, so I also really enjoyed the opportunity to start from the customer — to start from the sports fan — and see how we could improve, innovate, and iterate the experience. I had read a lot about Amazon and obviously spent a lot of money on Amazon and admired them from afar as a company, so it was also a great opportunity to get an ‘Amazon MBA.'”

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As consumer viewing habits have become more fractured and specialized over the years, live, unscripted content like sports has grown more important to networks as a proven, bankable commodity. That’s why it’s no surprise that media rights packages for major sports leagues like the NFL and NBA, as well as SEC and Big Ten college football, have spiked tremendously over the last several years.

Thus, Marie Donoghue’s sports sales pitch to Amazon was rather simple.

“It’s the most irreplaceable, powerful, unique, valuable content in the world,” she said. “The content inspires incredible passion and loyalty from customers and fans.”

Donoghue wasn’t sure if Amazon would agree with her, but she’s quite glad that it did. Then it was up to the Bronx native to figure out what Amazon could do to change the sports space and improve on serving sports fans globally. Sports content became more expensive and harder to find, she said, so there was an opportunity to bring that to Prime members and not only provide more value to those subscribers, but also create a convenient one-stop shop for fans.

Amazon not only had to acquire all these properties, but produce them as well — a process of hiring and managing teams across the board that Donoghue called exciting and personally rewarding. Her day-to-day responsibilities, whether in New York, Seattle, or elsewhere, have become a mix of overseeing, producing, and delivering content and looking into new acquisitions.

Asked if there was a common element that all Prime Video sports properties share, Donoghue said that they have to make sense for Amazon, serve sports fans better, and offer a product more conveniently than what’s currently available. That means innovating offerings through interactivity, engagement, she said, and customization to help create a big tent experience for fans showcasing diverse representation both behind and in front of the camera.

The exclusive Thursday night NFL package was acquired in March 2021 and was slated to begin in 2023; fewer than two months later, that timeline was moved up to 2022. As Amazon prepared to get its global flagship sports property off the ground — a monumental milestone for any streaming service — there were butterflies in Donoghue’s stomach and a sense of anticipation knowing the company had to get this right, delivering America’s most popular league across every device. That meant new hires, partners, and technologies had to be top notch, especially production trucks and cameras, at an accelerated pace, and a concerted effort across the company to ensure that all hands got this right.

“There was no way we would fail in the broadcast, and we set the bar really high to not just do what everyone else had done,” Donoghue said. “We wanted fans to exhale and say, ‘this is the NFL, this is the sport I love, and Amazon is serving it to me in an incredibly high quality, engaging way.’”

Marie Donoghue speaks on stage as Alliance for Women in Media presents the Gracies Leadership Awards in New York City, 2022 (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for The Alliance for Women in Media)

Amazon hired broadcasting legend Al Michaels to call games, veteran lead college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit as his partner, NBC’s Fred Gaudelli as executive producer, and Charissa Thompson as studio host, but also brought in a diverse set of new on-air talent. Kaylee Hartung was brought over after five years in news as the sideline reporter, Richard Sherman, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Andrew Whitworth were brought in as studio analysts from the league, and Taylor Rooks was brought in as a reporter with a mainly basketball background. While satisfied with the ratings, the production, and how it attracted a younger audience, Amazon is deep into plans for next season, iterating on new innovations and customizations in addition to the shoulder programming and alternative broadcasts elements and feeds from its debut campaign.

In March, the NFL also confirmed a report that the league’s owners will consider adding flexible scheduling to TNF games next season; an Amazon spokesperson declined comment on the issue. The league ultimately tabled that proposal, but expanded the maximum number of Thursday night games an individual team can play from one per season to two.

The NFL and Prime Video will additionally debut a Black Friday broadcast in 2023, a first for the network and the league, which arrives earlier than first expected as part of the rights package and will be available to stream for free. Donoghue called this a great sign of trust and a vote of confidence from the NFL. Suffice it to say that one of America’s largest shopping destinations plans to take full advantage of an exclusive NFL game on the country’s biggest shopping day.

“It’s the biggest traffic day of the year for Amazon, and it’s another holiday where sports fans are home,” Donoghue said. “We’re going to offer them new and exciting ways to engage with the NFL, engage with retail, and engage with their families. We hope we’re creating a new sports holiday for fans, and we are looking for some fun ways to integrate retail.”

Now that Prime Video has the NFL up and stably running, it may only be a matter of time before Amazon makes another big splash in the US. With the NBA’s media rights deal up at the end of the 2024-25 season, the league could seek as much as $75 billion for its next package and will likely want a streaming partner to join linear stalwarts like current partners ABC/ESPN and TNT. Could Amazon, which already shows NBA games in Brazil and offers NBA League Pass through Prime Video, buy into the NBA in a major way over the next few years?

“We aren’t able to comment on specific conversations we’ve had or haven’t had,” Donoghue said, “but I am on record as saying that I think the NBA is amazing content and I think we would love to bring the NBA. We’re always looking for opportunities to engage with the NBA and to bring more of their content to fans.”

Amazon is looking at everything, Donoghue said, including college sports packages. In what she described as her biggest challenge as well as an opportunity, her department is tasked with acquiring the best content in a financially responsible way — but with its existing properties, there’s always a challenge to innovate further, provide more content in a more convenient way for viewers on Prime Video, its Channels business, and even a return to pay-per-view.

Today, Prime Video Sports has more content than ever before, including a collection of documentaries and series close to Donoghue’s heart from her years overseeing ESPN’s groundbreaking “30 For 30” series. Amazon’s offerings included a look at the US-Mexico soccer rivalry, the Deion Sanders-led Coach Prime, and upcoming films on Reggie Jackson and JR Smith.

From current rights deals, documentaries, a daily slate of sports talk shows that debuted in September, and looking at new properties, Donoghue and Prime Video Sports have never been busier.

“It will be a balance between producing and raising the bar on what we have and continuing to look at more opportunities,” Donoghue said.

Not five years after convincing Amazon to go in on sports in blank slate fashion, Marie Donoghue’s division at Prime Video is a global player that could soon truly hit an even more impressive stride as sports leagues around the world truly embrace the opportunities unlocked by the streaming era. What happens next will further transform the way we watch sports in any number of directions — and you can expect Donoghue and Co. to play a dynamic role in leading the charge.

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