Amazon’s snazzy NFL bet: Al, Kirk…and Fred

Photo: AP
Photo: AP


A streaming service fully commits to football with a new duo—and an established production wizard in the truck

Thursday night, the NFL moves to Prime Video, as the Amazon beast wraps its mitts around the country’s foremost non-pickleball sports entertainment product.

If you watch Thursday Night Football—sorry, stream it—you’ll get the Kansas City Chiefs versus the Los Angeles Chargers, a spicy AFC West matchup. You’ll get the debut of Kirk Herbstreit, the ESPN college analyst who somehow convinced his bosses to let him moonlight breaking down the NFL on another network. I’m guessing that you’ll get a few reminders from the Bezos mother ship about its new, jazillion-dollar “Lord of the Rings" series.

You’ll also get Al & Fred.

Al you know. Al is Al Michaels, the Brooklyn-born, velvet-voiced play-by-play maestro making digital TV history at age 77. He’s an all-timer, one of the most recognizable voices in sports, calling pinnacle moments from Super Bowl end zone pickoffs to postseason home runs to a certain local amateur hockey team’s 1980 triumph over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Do you believe in Al Michaels? Of course you do. Al on the microphone is a quality Scotch, poured neat.

“The greatest to have ever called play-by-play," says Herbstreit, 53, the new partner.

Fred you may know less about, but he’s as responsible for the way prime-time football has looked in the 21st century as anyone else. Fred Gaudelli came up through the ranks at ESPN before Dick Ebersol hired him over to NBC to be the executive producer of Sunday Night Football, where he worked with Michaels for 21 years, first in the booth with John Madden, then Cris Collinsworth.

In a hypercompetitive, billion-dollar business, Gaudelli is considered the standard.

“There has never been, at any time, someone who is as complete a producer in sports television as Fred," says Ebersol.

Al & Fred are as close to a mindmeld as it gets in sports television. Both men believe in preparation, but also agree that a game must be allowed to develop organically, in real time. As Madden used to say, “You can’t format a live event," and it’s an edict Al & Fred stick to, refusing to drown the broadcast in fussy packages and harangues.

“A telecast needs to breathe," says Michaels. “You don’t have to racehorse the game. Nobody is sitting there on the edge of their sofa for three hours, intently watching every single thing. There’s a rhythm and a pacing. Just stay with the flow."

“Al has a line: ‘The hotter it gets, the less we have to do’" says Gaudelli, 62.

“The hotter it gets, the cooler you stay," says Michaels.

Michaels, who joined the iconic Monday Night Football booth with Frank Gifford in 1986, isn’t a salesman. A great game doesn’t need to be padded with hype, he believes, and a turkey of a game doesn’t need to be pumped up into a thrilling contest.

“There is zero hyperbole," says Gaudelli. “Everything gets measured at its current weight. He doesn’t sell. For the fan and the viewer, there’s an appreciation of that….Al just plays it straight all the time."

During a game, Michaels and Gaudelli will speak often—Michaels in a stadium booth with his partner and his handwritten notes on a yellow legal pad; Gaudelli outside in the truck with the production team. By now Al & Fred can sense each other’s instincts. Michaels thinks of himself as a pilot and Fred as the air tower. Gaudelli likens it to a “waltz."

“I don’t know who’s going backwards in heels," says Michaels.

Gaudelli, who grew up in Harrison, N.Y., is low drama—a temperament Michaels appreciates after working with former colleagues like the late Chet Forte, a talented producer who later would publicly discuss his compulsive gambling habit.

“I’ll never forget: On one of the first-ever Monday Night games I did, [Chet] wants to know why a team is running the clock out when they’re winning," Michaels says. “I’m just starting my Monday Night career, and I got this guy in my ear all pissed off because he’s going to lose his bet. When you survive that, you’re going to have a long career."

(Michaels himself is known for his coy references to gambling lines—an amusing habit losing its raffishness as sports betting goes legit and is embraced by the league. “I think it kind of bummed him out," Gaudelli says of legalization. “He enjoys being the rascal, as he likes to call it, and doing something that he wasn’t really permitted to do.")

At this point, Al & Fred could happily ride into the sunset. When NBC moved Mike Tirico in the booth with Cris Collinsworth for the 2022 NFL season—part of a series of musical chairs that included Joe Buck and Troy Aikman moving from Fox to ESPN’s Monday Night—Michaels was briefly unsure where he might land. He knew he wanted to keep doing games.

With Fred onboard Amazon—he maintains a role at NBC as well—Al was onboard.

“It’s the greatest job imaginable," Michaels says. “The years go by in a flash. What was I going to do? People said, ‘Well, why don’t you just step aside and you can play golf?’ I go, ‘Hold on a second. I get to play all the golf I need to play right now and still do this.’"

“I’ve worked with a lot of different announcers that, at certain point in their career, become jaded by the sport," Gaudelli says. “Al still gets jazzed by the game."

Prime Video isn’t expecting Al & Fred to reinvent the sport. Herbstreit widening to NFL action adds intrigue, but Michaels is unworried. “He’s very quick at analyzing and seeing what happens like bang, bang, bang, and he’s almost like a racehorse coming out of the gate," he says. There will be some experiments—Prime will try an alternate stream with “Dude Perfect," a wildly popular digital sports comedy team—but the main event will be a recognizable product. You won’t get Amazon links like You might also like men’s argyle dress socks.

“There’s nothing to fear but fear itself, but I do have one fear," Michaels says impishly. “That ‘Dude Perfect’ gets a bigger rating than we do, doing whatever the hell they’re doing."

Gaudelli chuckles. “I’ve seen them," he says. “They’re tremendous."

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