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What Peacock’s NFL playoff game and Netflix’s WWE deal signal for the future of sports streaming

Turkey with footballs as it's tail feathers wears a football helmet in front of an orange background.

Illustration by Reagan Hicks / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

When the masses got wind that an NFL playoff game was going to stream exclusively on the NBCUniversal-owned platform Peacock this year, many football fans and industry observers were up in arms. Mike Francesa, a sports radio host, called it a “disgrace.” Rep. Pat Ryan, a congressman from New York, called on the NFL to “end this Peacock bait-and-switch BS and offer the Dolphins–Chiefs game on TV.”

Never mind that the NFL had announced the Peacock playoff game way back in May. Never mind that the NFL and other sports leagues have been inching toward streaming in recent years, including a previous regular-season Peacock-exclusive NFL game. The damage was done — or was it?

The game between the Chiefs and Dolphins, which streamed on Jan. 13, attracted 23 million viewers, making it the most-streamed live event in the U.S. of all time, according to NBCU. Research firm Antenna estimates that it generated 2.8 million new signups for Peacock, the biggest subscription acquisition event it has measured. Could it mean more streaming-only games in the NFL’s future? The league has been balancing traditional linear TV audiences with cord-cutters in recent years, with streaming-first partnerships with Amazon Prime Video for Thursday Night Football and YouTube TV for its Sunday Ticket package. Some experts say the Peacock experiment could hasten the shift to streaming.

Josh Walker, co-founder and CEO of research firm Sports Innovation Lab, calls the Peacock playoff game “another major iron in the fire” for the trend.

It’s not just football moving toward streaming. Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball have deals with Apple TV+, for instance. Last week, Netflix announced its biggest push into live sports events yet, acquiring the streaming rights to WWE’s Raw.

“We’ve seen this play out before; it’s reminiscent of what happened in cable TV, where networks like ESPN taking on major sports tentpoles meant viewers had to pay for what was once free content on broadcast television,” says Shasta Cafarelli, SVP of media strategy at performance marketing firm Tinuiti.

She adds: “Though the quantity of cable households is now retracting, the model was highly successful in reaching mass audiences for decades, showing us that this is not only possible but can be largely embraced by both consumers and advertisers over time.”

Advertisers face a fragmented audience

For now, sports fans will still have to navigate games across different streaming platforms as well as on linear television.

“It’s like if you go into the supermarket and cereal was in aisle four, but now it’s in aisle 12,” Walker says. “But if the consumer cares enough about the game they will find it. What the NFL may lose is the casual fan that doesn’t want to discover where a game is.”

However, Walker notes, the NFL has also made strides in unscripted content — focusing on narratives around teams or athletes — that could appeal to casual fans. The league is also intent on broadening its fan base and capturing younger viewers and women, a demographic that has been engaging more with sports in recent years. Keeping Taylor Swift fans interested in the sport, for instance, is key for the league.

“Whether the Taylor Swift effect lasts or doesn’t last, we want to keep that fan base and we’ll do so by being culturally relevant — bringing in their life, their music, their fashion, the way they really want to engage [with] the game,” Marissa Solis, the NFL’s SVP of global and consumer marketing, told The Current Podcast in November.

For advertisers, they’ll face a more fragmented audience, which is where advancements in programmatic advertising — targeting specific consumers in real time — could come in.

“Advertisers will start to focus on the consumer and not the platform,” Walker says. “The big shift for the industry is not thinking about eyeballs but thinking about behaviors and people.”

The NFL is still learning about its fans

Peacock has had previous success in reeling in new subscribers during sports events, particularly when it streamed the Super Bowl in 2022. According to a report from Sports Innovation Lab, Peacock captured about 30 percent of the new sports-streaming market from January 2021 through March 2023.

But the big question for Peacock and other platforms: How do they halt subscriber churn and keep those new customers? In the short term, Peacock has another big sports event coming up to potentially entice them.

“While some attrition is inevitable, Peacock’s offering is going to remain highly relevant with their carriage of the 2024 Summer Olympics,” Cafarelli says. “I would venture that they will reward subscribers with additional streaming-exclusive opportunities on the heels of this success.”

But sports rights are costly, and long term, the companies that “have multiple pathways to recoup costs and drive revenue” are likely going to come out on top, Cafarelli says. This includes tech companies, as well as media companies “with a highly diversified offering, either within their own platforms or from acquiring others,” she adds.

The NFL still has distribution agreements with broadcast networks, as well as Amazon, through the 2033 season. But in that time, Walker expects more streaming experimentation from the league to figure out consumers’ shifting habits.

“The NFL still needs to learn more about their consumer,” he says. “They want to see how the NFL performs on Amazon because they want to know if their games are a conduit for e-commerce. Amazon’s their best way to test that. They want to see if their games are exclusive draws for new subscriptions. The playoff game on Peacock was a way to test that. They want to see if they can provide NFL Network content that’s exclusive to the NFL to drive their own ownership of their audience, so NFL+ is a way to test that.”

He adds: “The NFL knows they have a long rights deal with all their different rights holders […] They will use that window of time to test and methodically measure how to maximize those rights when they come up in the future.”