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Friday, February 23, 2024
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Can a Paywall Work for the NFL Playoffs? Peacock Will Find Out

  • Chiefs-Dolphins will be the first exclusively streamed postseason game, which has drawn the ire of some fans.
  • NBCU faces viewership concerns and future bidding competition, as the NFL plans to make it an annual tradition.
Nov 5, 2023; Frankfurt, Germany, ; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) throws a pass against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter during an NFL International Series game at Deutsche Bank Park.
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Matt and Tracy R. are lifelong Kansas City Chiefs fans, born and raised in Kansas. Now, both brothers live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but Matt remains a season-ticket holder. He’ll be braving the cold at Saturday’s wild-card playoff game against the Miami Dolphins with his son. But Tracy won’t be attending—and he’s not a subscriber to Peacock, which will air the first exclusively streamed NFL playoff game. Since he doesn’t live in the K.C. or South Florida markets, Tracy has been debating whether to spend $5.99 to sign up for Peacock’s basic monthly subscription or venture out to a sports bar. 

The decision won’t break Tracy’s bank account, but it’s the new reality for NFL fans in 2024. NBCUniversal paid $110 million for the right to put Chiefs-Dolphins on its three-year-old streaming network. The deal is only for this year, but moving forward, the NFL has said that one wild-card game each year will be intended for a streamer. (Amazon was reportedly interested in acquiring this season’s game.) 

Peacock’s first exclusive regular-season NFL broadcast, on Dec. 23, drew 7.2 million viewers for the Buffalo Bills’ 24-22 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, or about 25% of the service’s subscriber base of 30 million (all in the U.S.). The wild-card matchup will feature the same commercial-free fourth quarter that debuted in December. More fans will presumably tune in Saturday night, but likely fewer than any of last season’s six wild-card weekend games, which drew between 20 million and 33 million viewers each on linear television.

Viewership aside, NBCU could have further competition beyond Amazon next year to retain the wild-card game from league partners Disney and CBS, which could put the game on ESPN+ and Paramount+, respectively. (Fox doesn’t have a paid streaming service.)

One way or another, paywall playoffs are now a part of the NFL’s future.

Dissenting Opinions

It doesn’t take long to find fans who are irked by the streaming pivot. A post on the Dolphins’ Reddit page asking for feedback quickly sparked many passionate responses. “I refuse to pay to watch a playoff game,” wrote one Miami fan who now lives in Buffalo. But despite the outrage from some, a recent Front Office Sports-Harris Poll found that a majority of potential viewers are O.K. with Peacock, or any other streamer, airing a game like Chiefs-Dolphins. Roughly three in five (61%) NFL fans and two in five (45%) U.S. adults said they would be likely to pay for a subscription to a streaming service in order to watch an NFL playoff game.

Several experts that Front Office Sports spoke to support the move. “These are good things to experiment with,” says Marc DeBevoise, CEO of streaming technology company Brightcove. A former CBS executive, DeBevoise says putting big games on services like Peacock allows the NFL to see if it can drive a large enough audience on platforms without the reach of network TV or even top streamers like Amazon (with its estimated 150 million U.S. subscribers) and Netflix (77 million North American customers).

Mark Patricof, the founder and CEO of athlete-focused investment platform Patricof Co, expects “a lot” more streaming in the NFL’s future, but he doesn’t anticipate many new entrants to the space. “The only ‘broadcasters’ left who can afford to air NFL games exclusively will be Apple and Amazon,” he predicts. “This is because they have multiple ways of monetizing these broadcasts, while the other networks and streamers do not.”

A bold prediction, no doubt, but the NFL’s streaming push this season has clearly benefited Amazon—and another rival tech giant.

Billion-Dollar Payoff

Amazon and Google (Alphabet) are respectively paying $1 billion and $2 billion per year for NFL rights. They have collective market caps totaling more than $3 trillion, so spending less than 0.1% of said valuations may seem trivial. But both are finding football to be worth it.

Viewership of Thursday Night Football on Prime Video was up 24% during the 2023 season, reaching an average audience of 11.86 million per game. Amazon paid another $100 million for the inaugural Black Friday NFL game, a Dolphins-New York Jets matchup that experimented with integrated shopping features. Despite underperforming by TNF standards with 9.61 million viewers, Amazon said it hopes to do it all over again next Thanksgiving weekend. 

Google is typically coy about publicly confirming subscriber numbers for YouTube TV (a recent estimate from MoffettNathanson said 7 million) and its new NFL Sunday Ticket out-of-market package, which is also available a la carte via YouTube. But most indications in Year 1 are positive. 

In September, the NFL said that Sunday Ticket already boasted more subscribers than it had on DirecTV in 2022. (The satellite provider’s Sunday Ticket numbers were private.) In October, Sunday Ticket was said to have attracted 1.3 million subscribers, according to a Bloomberg report citing data from research firm Antenna. Meanwhile, Business Insider reported that YouTube TV subscribers grew by 48% from October 2022 to October 2023.

Whether fans like it or not, DeBevoise thinks the NFL’s strategy of bringing in various streaming offerings—as expensive as $450 for Sunday Ticket or as cheap as $6 for a Peacock subscription—is smart. “They have done a great job of parsing out the audience relative to their willingness and ability to pay,” he says.

Just The Beginning?

The NFL’s current 11-year media rights deals just went into effect with the 2023 season, seemingly blocking out any new streamers or other broadcasters until 2034. However, the league has the ability to opt out after seven seasons, which could mean new partners as soon as 2030. And until then, the NFL can keep carving up its portfolio of games between its current broadcast partners.

Amazon is locked in as the league’s main streaming partner and clearly wants more than just TNF, given its Black Friday efforts and reported postseason interest. Peacock certainly looks like it wants to be a big factor moving forward. Fox hasn’t shown signs of interest in the streaming wars, and Paramount+ hasn’t bought an exclusive NFL broadcast despite offering weekly game simulcasts. ESPN+ has exclusively streamed one London Game each of the past two seasons, and in 2025 the NFL might have as many as nine International Series games that could even be sold as their own package—a perfect opportunity for streaming. 

NFL executives have previously told FOS that an international game might eventually be exclusively streamed on the league-owned NFL+ service. “When that time’s right, I think we’ll be really excited about bringing one of those games behind the paywall into NFL+,” Aaron Perez, the NFL’s senior director of strategy and business management, said previously.

Saturday night will be a good test for the league. Perhaps the best matchup of wild-card weekend sits behind Peacock’s paywall. For anyone not already subscribed to the service, Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid versus Tua Tagovailoa and Mike McDaniel will essentially be a mini-pay-per-view contest. Is $5.99 worth it?

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