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Why Chiefs-Dolphins on Peacock was just the start of streaming-only playoff games

You grumbled. You seethed. You asked around for a password. You questioned if it was really true, if the only way you could watch an NFL playoff game was on a streaming service.

And then you — at least a substantial number of you, that is — went ahead and paid up.

The numbers for NBC/Peacock’s bold new venture in NFL programming — a streaming-only playoff game — are in, and they’re bad news for anyone who thought this might be a one-time experiment.

NBC indicated that Saturday night’s chilly Kansas City-Miami wild-card playoff game averaged 23.0 million viewers, though it’s worth noting that figure combines both Peacock and the NBC over-the-air numbers in both Kansas City and Miami. So enthused, NBC touted the ratings news on its Sunday night game — an unusual flex, to say the least. Network PR further indicated that the event was the most live-streamed in U.S. history, and Saturday was the highest day ever for internet usage in the United States.

As Sports Media Watch points out, that audience figure was six percent higher than last year’s Chargers-Jaguars game in the same time slot, although it fell well short of the 29.0 million who watched the Texans-Browns game across NBC and its outlets earlier in the day.

NBC didn’t release numbers on how many people watched exclusively on Peacock — or, more importantly for the network, how many people signed up just for the game — but a look at earlier numbers for streaming-only games provides a clue. As SMW noted, the most-watched Thursday Night Football game on Amazon Prime was a Seahawks-Cowboys game that averaged 15.26 million, while Peacock’s Bills-Chargers December game averaged 7.33 million. It’s reasonable to speculate that a playoff game would draw much higher numbers than a regular-season game.

All these millions add up to one inescapable truth: Streaming-only games are enough of a success that you’ll be seeing more of them in the future. Perhaps many more.

Why TV sports are so valuable

Sports are the most prized property on TV, because unlike anything else, you can’t timeshift games — watch them later, in other words. While you could wait a day, a week or a year to watch a hot TV show — I’m going to get to “The Bear” one of these days — you can’t exactly stream a playoff game on Wednesday. The immediacy is the draw, and that’s why — for now — sports leagues can command billions over multiple years to broadcast their games.

But that value puts broadcasters, like all media, in a vise of competing interests. Sports rights fees are spiraling even faster than sports salaries, and broadcasters need to figure out how to pay for those billions they’re laying out to the NFL, the NBA and more.

Broadcasters thus have two choices: Bring in new viewers, or squeeze existing ones for more money. But this is where the other clamp of the vise — the viewer — comes into play. Broadcasters like ESPN could once count on guaranteed revenue from cable providers to underwrite their operations; millions of cable subscribers, even those who never got within 50 channels of ESPN, pay a carriage fee as part of their monthly bill.

Plus, viewers in general are not as plugged into sports as they once were; a world of entertainment options awaits the 2024 consumer. The NFL isn’t competing with the NBA, it’s competing with Netflix, TikTok and Twitch for the attention of viewers, particularly younger viewers.

How to get more money out of the same viewers

As legacy revenue streams dry up and competition from all sides heats up, broadcasters face a challenge: Extract revenue from people not accustomed to paying for what they’ve enjoyed for free (relatively speaking) their entire lives.

Airlines have been pulling this trick for years. They can’t get you to your destination any faster, so they can only squeeze more money out of you by charging for previously free services (luggage) or making you so uncomfortable in that middle seat that you’re willing to pay more to level up to a more relaxing status.

Thus, it’s not hard to envision a future where even more playoff games are behind paywalls. Or, say, an over-the-air broadcast is still free, but you’ll have to pay a fee if you want the higher-definition picture for your sweet 75-inch television.

Here’s the question, though: At what point do consumers decide that enough is enough? A media reckoning is coming; American viewers aren’t going to keep adding new streaming services forever. If you missed Saturday night’s Chiefs-Dolphins game, you missed Patrick Mahomes’ helmet cracking like a dropped plate, Tua Tagovailoa adding to questions about his long-term future, Taylor Swift swag-surfing … and not much else. It was a playoff game, and there aren’t many of those, but it wasn’t life-altering, either.

There’s a certain percentage of the American public that will never abandon the NFL, not if it’s $5.99 or $599. But every new barrier to entry that the league and its broadcasters put in place, whether it’s locating the NFL on a service you already own, or making you subscribe to an entirely new one, sheds some of those established viewers and keeps new ones from joining.

Is the revenue derived from plays like Saturday night’s Peacock game enough to offset the loss of viewers who turn their backs on the league, or never connect with it to start? That’s the question that will dominate the next phase of NFL media.

The Super Bowl won’t be going behind a paywall anytime soon; its reach is simply too broad. But for every other postseason game, plan on keeping that credit card handy. You’ll need it.