With three elegantly simple words, Josh Bowen spoke for millions of NFL fans:
“This shit sucks.”
The Kansas City native, who owns John Brown Smokehouse in Queens, had no clue that Saturday’s Chiefs-Dolphins wild-card game was airing exclusively on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s streaming service, until we spoke this week. When I told him, he didn’t believe me at first. “I was just assuming this was gonna be on TV like a normal playoff game would be,” he said. “So I’m gonna have to pay for a subscription to watch a playoff game?”
The idea of being forced to sign up for a streaming service in order to show playoff football to the hundreds of Chiefs fans packing his restaurant doesn’t just annoy Bowen. It offends him. “It’s un-American to be charging for playoff games,” he says.
On the other hand, money grabs are actually an American tradition (as is complaining about paying for something that used to be free). But this specific money grab is new. Last year, NBCUniversal reportedly shelled out $110 million to the NFL for the rights to broadcast one playoff game on its digital platform. Unless you live in the Kansas City or Miami areas, there will be no way to watch Chiefs-Dolphins on traditional, local television. It’s the first NFL playoff game that will only be available on a streaming service.
Sure, having to pay six bucks to catch a single game (and then maybe a few episodes of The Office) isn’t a grave injustice. But pay-per-view football is impossible not to rail against. It’s the kind of nakedly cynical concept that unites us all. On his podcast, sports radio legend Mike Francesa dubbed it an “utterly disgraceful, greedy reach by the NFL.” Founder of The Ringer, Bill Simmons, called it “one of the all-time sports television disasters.” Wichita Eagle opinion editor Dion Lefler opened his column on the subject by quoting Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ”: “As we celebrate mediocrity, all the boys upstairs want to see / how much you’ll pay for what you used to get for free.”
Hell, even Chiefs defensive end Charles Omenihu weighed in: “Us playing on peacock ONLY is insane I won’t lie,” he tweeted before offering to pay for three-month subscriptions for 90 people. And right on time, apoplectic fans started to blame Taylor Swift for the NFL’s decision to put the weekend’s marquee matchup on a platform that most of the country doesn’t have.
The numbers-juicing conspiracy theories are exhausting and easy to dismiss, but it’s just as easy to understand the anger behind them. As the entertainment industry has fractured and live events have become the last remaining reliable draw for mass viewership, sports leagues—particularly the NFL, which astonishingly accounted for 93 of the 100 most-watched programs in 2023—have found themselves in a position of pure leverage. They’re the last working well in town, and everyone’s thirsty. But by letting the NBCUniversals, Amazons, and Netflixes of the world break their bank accounts for broadcast rights, leagues like the NFL have also jeopardized the viewer experience.
“It’s all take and no give,” says Leigh Nelson, a Chiefs fan who lives in Denver. She’s not naive. She understands the NFL’s digital push. It’s 2024, after all. “That part isn’t necessarily new,” she says. But she can’t shake that this is a playoff game. “There’s something about a playoff game that feels like it kind of belongs to the fans a little bit more than a regular game does.”
The fact that fans are basically being given no choice but to buy a Peacock subscription is, of course, ironic. The promise of streaming was that it would give viewers endless choices. But in practice, the shattering of TV’s old (yet profitable) model has led to an impossible one in which being a (law-abiding) completist requires a host of recurring monthly payments. To watch the full slate of NFL games this season, you needed access to the major TV networks, Amazon Prime Video, ESPN, the NFL Network, YouTubeTV (the only place you can buy the Sunday Ticket package), and sometimes Peacock (the streamer broadcast a game between the Bills and Chargers during Week 16). The league has also stretched out its schedule like pizza dough over the last decade, strategically sprinkling games throughout the week. Simply figuring out how to watch can be a pain in the ass.
“While most of humanity is benefitting from the shift to streaming, sports fans are sort of fucked,” says Alan Wolk, cofounder of the media analysis firm TVREV. “It’s like, ‘Where do I watch the game? Where is it? Do I have to subscribe to this new service now that I don’t really care about? And I don’t even know where it is.’ And all that. There’s a lot of anger.”
This season, Bowen had to keep his restaurant open on Christmas because his team had an afternoon game that day. “The person who made this year’s Chiefs schedule is hereby banned from John Brown,” he wrote on Facebook. “Next year we expect a game in Europe at 3 a.m., on a Wednesday, on CSPAN. … Merry Christmas to each and every one of you. Except Raiders and Broncos fans.”
Bowen knows that streaming is “the future,” but the way the NFL treats its viewers bothers him. He also knows that it could be worse. “There are Chiefs bars out there that don’t even have HD TVs yet,” he says. And then there are the millions of aging fans at home who haven’t made the switch to streaming yet. They want to watch the damn game, too.
All of this leads to one obvious question for the NFL: “Is it eventually going to bite them in the ass?” Wolk asks. “Because fans, I think, see it as a money grab. It’s not like you’re making it convenient for me. You’re just trying to make more money. And then that could translate to, ‘Well, to hell with this.’”
It could. Then again, it hasn’t yet. In 2023, NFL ratings shot up. At this point, there may be no controversy that will curb our ravenous hunger for football. No matter how irritating and difficult it’s becoming to consume it, simply not watching isn’t a real option. Our loyalty isn’t to the league. It’s to a sport that, despite its well-chronicled ugliness, gives us more surprising, exciting moments than anything else on TV. It’s to our teams, which are part of our identities. Not tuning in feels like an act of self-betrayal.
So on Saturday night, fans in Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa jerseys across America will be scanning the channel listings, screaming “Where the fuck is the game?!” at their 70-inch flat-screen TVs. After a few minutes, though, they’ll forget that they had to subscribe to a streaming service to watch. And the next day, all they’ll think about is who won and who lost. They probably won’t even remember to cancel Peacock.