In what was recorded as the fourth-coldest game in NFL history, the American Football Conference Wild Card showdown between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins on January 13 unfolded as a relatively one-sided affair, as the defending Super Bowl champions, the Chiefs, cruised to a comfortable 26–7 victory over ‘The Phins’ on home soil. 

Canadian NFL fans tuning in to witness Dolphins superstar wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s return to Arrowhead Stadium could catch the game on at least one of the five The Sports Network (TSN) channels. However, Americans outside Kansas City or Miami surfing through their cable TV package likely had more difficulty finding a broadcaster airing the Saturday night showdown. That’s because the Chiefs’ humbling of the Dolphins was being exclusively offered nationwide in the States on the NBCUniversal-owned streaming platform, Peacock –– marking the NFL’s first streaming-only playoff game. 

According to Nielsen, an American firm that measures media audiences, the matchup generated 23 million viewers, making it the most-streamed live event in US history. The game was also solely responsible for the most internet usage ever in the US on a single date, consuming 30 per cent of internet traffic. These numbers were undoubtedly music to the ears of the Peacock executives, who had coughed up $110 million for exclusive rights to air Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ lopsided triumph. 

According to Jay Busbee of Yahoo! Sports, the millions of viewers can mean only one thing: streaming-only games are here to stay. 

The start of streaming-only playoff games 

The Chiefs-Dolphins game on Peacock echoes a new era of streaming that has ushered its way into the sports media landscape. In the future, fans looking to watch a single NFL postseason game will have to find it behind paywalls of different subscription-based platforms –– meaning that access to sports content may no longer be limited to traditional TV channels but will spread across various streaming services.

This may sound overwhelming to the average football enthusiast, who longs for the days when every NFL game was easily accessible through their local sports channels. However, the demand for gridiron football is currently at an all-time high, and with record-breaking viewership numbers in 2024, it’s almost certain that the North American public will not be abandoning the NFL anytime soon, even if it means subscribing to an entirely new service. 

NFL ratings’ dominance 

The monster viewership ratings that the NFL generates are why streaming service executives can charge the public a one-time subscription fee and get away with it, and it’s not because they necessarily have to; it’s because they can. 

A recent Sportico report found that the NFL made up 72 of the top 100 broadcasted events in 2020 and 82 in 2022. In 2023, the NFL comprised 93 of the top 100 broadcasted events.

The NFL dominates the “Big Four” North American sports leagues in the viewership category, and Christmas Day 2023 was a testament to this. The game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers — the least-viewed December 25 NFL matchup — attracted nearly twice as many live viewers (27.1 million) as all five NBA Christmas Day games combined (14.4 million). 

Later, this year’s divisional round games averaged 40 million viewers –– the highest on record since 1988, and a whopping 126.7 million viewers tuned in throughout the weekend. 

The Sunday prime-time nail-biter between the Buffalo Bills and Chiefs averaged 50.4 million viewers for CBS –– the most-watched divisional or wild-card game on record. Furthermore, the Saturday prime-time contest between the 49ers and the Green Bay Packers is now the most-watched Saturday NFL playoff game on record, with an average of 37.5 million viewers. 

As Super Bowl LVIII looms, expect all eyes across the country to be glued to their television screens, eagerly awaiting to see who will lift the Lombardi Trophy on February 11 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Say what you want about Peacock’s money-grabbing decisions, but they make sense: the NFL product is the hottest thing in sports right now. As the league continues to break its own viewership records every week, don’t be surprised next year when you find yourself forking over your credit card to watch 60 minutes of playoff football.