The only place a reverse happens in the NFL is on the field. The league rarely moves backward when it comes to increasing its media rights coffers. If you were to place a wager on whether Saturday’s first-ever exclusive, live-streamed NFL playoff game is going to be repeated in the future, you’d be wise to bet big on the same thing happening during the 2024 postseason.
Hans Schroeder, the NFL’s executive vice president of media distribution, nearly said as much during a conference call with reporters three days before the game.
“As it relates to the wild-card game exclusively, we’re excited to continue the conversation,” said Schroeder. “This is a deal for this year, but it’s an NFL playoff game. I expect there will be a lot of interest in it. We’re excited to continue the conversation with NBC with what we do this year and seeing where those opportunities are for next year.”
No matter politicians sending out social media posts, no matter current players with concerns, and no matter the totally legit fan complaints for having to pay extra for an NFL playoff game, the league as an entity has one objective — to continue as an ATM for its owners. It was a money grab for the present and the future, and in many ways, the viewership for the game is irrelevant to whether the NFL continues to sell playoff games to streamers.
Peacock paid $110 million to air the Kansas City Chiefs’ 26-7 win over the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night in the AFC wild-card round, an attempt to add to its current tally of 30 million subscribers. The strategy for Peacock, as it is for other streamers that air sports, is to use the exclusivity of a major live sporting event to drive mass audience aggregation. It is a strategy that has historically worked for linear entities, and Peacock is sticking with its strategy despite $2.8 billion in losses in 2023. (Peacock’s hope is $2.8 billion represents peak losses.)
But the game turned out to be a massive viewership success. Viewership across Peacock, NBC stations in Miami and Kansas City and on mobile with NFL+, according to Nielsen custom fast national data, was 23 million viewers. That is the most-streamed NFL game ever in the U.S. based on average audience. The Dolphins-Chiefs game peaked at an average of 24.6 million viewers in the second quarter, including out-of-home viewership. The 23 million viewership average tops last year’s least-watched playoff game (Los Angeles Chargers at Jacksonville Jaguars, which averaged 20.61 million viewers on NBC) by a couple of million viewers. (For broader context, last year’s six wild-card games across Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC/ESPN/ESPN2 averaged 28.8 million viewers.)
Daniel Cohen, the executive vice president of global media rights consulting at Octagon, told The Athletic that subscriber churn and piracy are the two biggest challenges facing subscription video-on-demand growth in the U.S. That’s one of the questions that will be answered in a couple of months: How many people signed up to watch the game, and then how many of those new subscribers canceled after the game? (The cheapest option to purchase the game was $5.99 for a one-month premium plan.) Peacock was atop the iPhone and iPad charts on Saturday night as far as downloaded apps.
NBC naturally pushed the Peacock offering throughout the fourth quarter of the Houston Texans’ blowout of the Cleveland Browns earlier Saturday, including showing Taylor Swift walking in the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium. The “Football Night In America” crew also hawked the Peacock game, and that group provided bonus coverage at the start of the game on NBC with Ahmed Fareed, Devin McCourty and Chris Simms providing play-by-play on a split screen of the game.
Rick Cordella, the president of NBC Sports, said before the game that the company’s two big goals were to have a great production and deliver a clean experience to the users across America. There were no widespread reports of major streaming issues, so that goes down as a win for Peacock. (Peacock can’t control so-called last-mile issues, which involve local cable and internet companies or personal devices.) How you processed the game probably depends on your thoughts of Mike Tirico and Jason Garrett and whether you thought the payment was worth it if you were new to Peacock. Tirico is always a pro. Garrett’s energy was miles better than Dungy last year, though there are plenty of better NFL analysts. If you were a neutral fan and not rooting for Miami or Kansas City, the game wasn’t very memorable.
Peacock’s first exclusive NFL game, which saw the Buffalo Bills defeat the Chargers on Dec. 23, averaged 7.3 million viewers and peaked at an average of 8.4 million viewers from 10:45-11 p.m. ET during the NFL’s first-ever commercial-free fourth quarter. The Chiefs-Dolphins playoff game also went commercial-free in the fourth quarter based on sponsorship from AWS, Geico and Hotels.com. As Anthony Crupi of Sportico wisely noted, “Comcast is more invested in the long-term growth of Peacock than the immediate adrenaline spike that comes with an extra $18 million to $20 million in commercial cash.”
NBC first started streaming “Sunday Night Football” on the internet in 2008, and they were the first NFL partner in the U.S. to stream the Super Bowl (in 2012). Peacock would be a natural fit for doing this again.
“We’ve been on Peacock for several years now, and we’re excited with the plan NBC came back with and came to us all the way last spring,” Schroeder said. “We’re excited with the continued growth that we’re seeing across our digital distribution, certainly with ‘Thursday Night Football’ on Amazon, where their weekly viewership numbers are approaching last year on television with Fox and NFL Network.”
Schroeder was careful to say that the NFL remains committed to broadcast television. That is true, though Saturday night did feel like a seismic moment, a line crossed.
“That still continues to be the broadest possible reach,” Schroeder said. “You can’t reach 190 million people throughout the course of the year without having very broad distribution of your content, and that’s always been a bedrock for us and I think a real differentiator for us versus other sports. Every one of our games is on broadcast television, at least in their market, and probably 90 percent of our games (are) on broadcast as their core platform. For us, it remains really important. We see the continued evolution in the media landscape, and we want to be where our fans are. We know they’re increasingly, especially younger fans, on different screens.”
Your potential dislike of this is understandable, but the NFL does not go backward. Bet big this happens again next January.
There was an unexpected hire from ESPN last week — Nick Kyrgios will be a guest commentator for ESPN’s coverage of the 2024 Australian Open. The 28-year-old Wimbledon finalist in 2022 is one of the most popular and polarizing figures in the sport. He missed all four majors in 2023 because of wrist, knee and foot injuries and said recently his playing career is close to the end.
How did the Australian player and the U.S. home of tennis get together? Mark Gross, the senior vice president, production and remote events for ESPN, said Stuart Duguid, who represents Kyrgios, reached out to ESPN to gauge their interest in his client working the Australian Open.
“The deal came together fairly quickly because of the interest from both sides,” Gross said. “The plan is to have Nick on the air in prime time East Coast time. We certainly believe Nick will be very good on the air, and we want to make sure the largest portion of our audience will see and hear him (instead of having him on the air in the overnight hours).”
Gross said Kyrgios will handle a mix of matches and studio work depending on the day and the schedule. For now, the deal is only for the Australian Open, but ESPN is certainly open to exploring things down the road. He and John McEnroe called the Stefanos Tsitsipas-Zizou Bergs match Sunday night for ESPN and early returns were he was excellent.
“For now, it’s just the Australian Open, but we’ll certainly be open to talking to Nick and Stuart about opportunities moving forward,” Gross said. “In fairness to Nick and tennis fans, we hope Nick gets on the court soon so we can cover his matches.”
Nick Kyrgios exclusive interview: ‘I feel more respected in the U.S. than Australia’
— Pretty cool note that Noah Eagle called the Texans-Browns game on NBC while his father, Ian Eagle, called the same game for Westwood One Audio.
— ESPN said “Sunday NFL Countdown” had its most-watched regular season since 2019 and its second-best since 2016, averaging 1.335 million viewers per show. Viewership was up 8 percent.
— Former U.S. national team star Ali Krieger joined CBS Sports’ soccer coverage as a studio analyst.
— ESPN’s full slate of college football bowls this season averaged 4.6 million viewers across 40 total games, up 5 percent year-over-year.
— The partnership between the NFL and ESPN could soon grow more intertwined with the league in advanced talks to acquire an equity stake in the sports network.
— Fun to see Fox NFL Sunday analyst Jimmy Johnson amp it up.
Some things I read over the past couple of weeks that were interesting to me (there are paywall here):
• Bryan Curtis of The Ringer examines the last two weeks at ESPN.
• An Iowa paperboy disappeared 41 years ago. His mother is still on the case. By Thomas Lake of CNN.
• It was the Patriot Way, until it wasn’t. By Seth Wickersham, Wright Thompson and Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN.
• ESPN used fake names to secure Emmys for ‘College GameDay’ stars. By Katie Strang of The Athletic.
• The Whale Who Went AWOL. By Ferris Jabr for The New York Times Magazine.
• Great piece by Jeff Pearlman: V.J. Lovero and the bygone age of the sports photographer.
• A rising star at celebrity trials like O.J. Simpson’s. Then a quiet, mysterious death. By Harriet Ryan of the L.A. Times.
• A stroke took Charlie Manuel’s words away. Baseball is giving them back. By Matt Gelb of The Athletic.
• NBC Sports producer Annie Koeblitz and NFL writer Peter King produced a beautifully shot feature on Niners linebackers coach Johnny Holland, who is battling a rare form cancer.
• Perry High School Principal Dan Marburger, wounded in Jan. 4 shootings, passes away. By The Des Moines Register staff.
• Tom Shales, Pulitzer-winning TV critic of fine-tuned wit, dies at 79. By Adam Bernstein and Brian Murphy of The Washington Post.
• A filmmaker was producing a documentary series on the Iran hostage crisis. Then her father went missing overseas. By Lucy Sexton and Joe Sexton for The Atavist.
• China Failed to Sway Taiwan’s Election. What Happens Now? By Damien Cave of The New York Times.
• He spent his life building a $1 million stereo. The real cost was unfathomable. By Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post.
Episode 361 of the Sports Media Podcast features Karen Brodkin, the co-head of WME Sports and an EVP at its parent company, Endeavor, and Hillary Mandel, an executive vice president and head of media for the Americas for IMG, an Endeavor company. Brodkin and Mandel have worked as advisors on an endless amount of media deals, from individual team deals to league deals. They recently served as consultants for the NCAA for its $920 million, eight-year agreement with ESPN.
In this podcast, Brodkin and Mandel explain their jobs and the skill sets needed for it; the use of research in evaluating deal points; the current economic environment for sports media rights; why the NCAA ultimately opted not to separate the women’s basketball tournament in the deal away from its other championships; why women’s college sports is on the rise; the Pac-12 falling apart; Peacock’s playoff deal with the NFL and what it means for consumers heading forward and more.
You can subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and more.
What happens next for Pat McAfee and ESPN? Where things stand between the star and network
(Top photo of the Peacock sign on display Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City: Scott Winters / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)