The year is 2045. Fourth week in February. After a grueling 21-week regular season and five rounds of playoffs, the Super Bowl matchup is set: Buffalo Bills versus London Jaguars. The NFL is anticipating 130 million viewers will stream the game on Netflix, which serves as the exclusive home of the Super Bowl following a multibillion-dollar deal the company signed with the league in 2040.
Those who don’t have a subscription to the streaming service can pay $149 for a one-month trial that includes access to the game through one of Netflix’s 10 Megacast Super Bowl feeds. One popular Megacast option will be the Legends Room, where retired players Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and C.J. Stroud interact live with viewers while watching the game. Adam Amin, Greg Olsen and Laura Rutledge will call the game on Netflix’s main NFL channel.
Sound far-fetched? Maybe it would have been 10 years ago. While a thought exercise on the NFL making the Super Bowl a pay-per-view event is nothing new, what is new is the era we are living in. Last month’s first-ever exclusive, live-streamed NFL playoff game on Peacock felt like a seismic moment.
Peacock paid $110 million to air the Kansas City Chiefs’ 26-7 win over the Miami Dolphins in the AFC wild-card round, an attempt to add to its tally of 30 million subscribers. Antenna, a research firm that tracks streaming data, estimated that Peacock had 2.8 million sign-ups over a three-day window around the wild-card game, which averaged 23 million viewers. It was the single biggest subscriber acquisition moment ever measured by Antenna.
Is the Super Bowl behind a paywall an inevitability in the next 40 years or so?
“Given the rate of cord-cutting is over 7 percent, or five million homes gone every year, the odds are very good that the Super Bowl will be on a streaming platform in ‘our’ lifetime,” said Michael Nathanson, the co-founder and senior managing director of research firm MoffettNathanson, which provides trends in media, communications and technology to institutional investors.
NFL officials have repeatedly stated that the league is committed to broadcast television and the broad distribution of games. Hans Schroeder, the NFL’s executive vice president of media distribution, told reporters last month, including The Athletic, that “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. … 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.”
Sean McManus, the longtime chairman of CBS Sports, who is retiring from his post later this year, noted that such a conversation can’t happen until after this current set of NFL media rights expires. The league’s media rights agreements with CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and Amazon are worth about $110 billion and run through the 2033 season.
Super Bowl LVIII projections: Chiefs meet 49ers in rematch of 2020 game
“There’s no immediate worry,” McManus said. “(NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell has been very upfront that broad distribution is part of the reason the NFL is successful as it is. Yes, the NFL expanded with some games on Peacock, including a playoff game. … But when you have 56 million people watching the AFC Championship Game (on CBS), that’s a great success story. I can’t speak for Netflix, Amazon or Apple whether it makes business sense for them to pay hundreds of millions for a playoff game, but I do know linear television is extremely important to the success of the NFL.”
Along with McManus, David Levy, the former president of Turner Sports and now the co-CEO of Horizon Sports & Experiences, a sports marketing agency and consultancy, also believes that the Super Bowl will remain on broadcast, free-to-air television for years to come.
“Broadcast and free-to-air is still the largest reach vehicle,” Levy said. “You’re always building your next generation of fans, and they want the place to get the largest reach. Thirty years from now? I can’t answer that because I don’t know who will be the commissioner of the NFL and who would be owning these teams.”
Levy was very positive about the NFL product appearing on streaming services. But he noted an important point: Any streaming service airing the Super Bowl exclusively would need its own production capabilities and enough of a proof of concept with production elements where the NFL would feel confident to put its most important property in their hands. That’s not something Netflix or Apple have at the moment.
“Everyone expects to turn on network television and see a Super Bowl,” said Tracy Wolfson, the NFL sideline reporter who is calling Sunday’s game for CBS. “I think you alienate those that cannot watch it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more playoff games there, but I think when it comes to the Super Bowl, it is how many eyeballs and making sure it is available for all to watch.”
William Mao, a senior vice president of global media rights at Octagon, a sports and entertainment agency, believes we are not likely in the next 20 to 25 years to see a Super Bowl airing exclusively on a streaming service in the U.S. if free-to-air TV penetration (remains larger than any single subscription video-on-demand base. He said his answer would change only when (or if) a paywall streamer has the subscriber reach capacity near to the free-to-air penetration of today.
“So long as the Super Bowl continues to be the most-watched live TV broadcast by a wide margin, it will remain available on free-to-air in some shape or form,” Mao predicted. “The aggregation of 100 million-plus viewers on a single broadcast remains too big of an advertising draw to exclusively paywall, and all signs point to the continued upswing in Super Bowl ratings and ad rates via its current distribution.
“Could there come a point in the future where something else knocks the Super Bowl off the top perch? Sure, never say never. But right now the gap between the first and second most-watched broadcasts in America is over 60 million viewers. So why would the NFL upset its own dominant and extremely lucrative standing?”
Mao pointed out that the Super Bowl is unique because it draws in tons of casual viewers. People watch the game for a variety of reasons, including the commercials and halftime music acts. He wondered if top music performers would continue to perform the halftime show at little cost if the broadcast was behind a paywall and not guaranteed to reach the same-sized audience. There would also be some folks in Congress with an interest if the NFL headed down this road.
This discussion feels much more relevant in 2024 because of the Peacock game. We don’t know how many new subscribers will stick with Peacock long-term, and the game was not 100 percent exclusively streaming because it appeared on free-to-air television in Kansas City and Miami. But the NFL placed one of its premium inventory games behind a paywall.
“The Peacock number was solid, and the broadcast provided an informative reference point for future NFL games that get similarly distributed,” Mao said. “For example, will a 40 percent lesser ad load become the norm for streamer games? But there are still many moves between shifting one of many wild-card games to a streamer versus moving the biggest game of the year. In my view, the Super Bowl should be one of the last things to go exclusively behind a paywall in the NFL’s portfolio.”
It’s not easy to come up with a price point for a Super Bowl behind a paywall. Is there a ceiling for what is far and away the most popular communal TV experience for Americans every year (as well as close to nine million Canadians)? Going back to the hypothetical lede of this article: Say Netflix got 30 million new signups for a Super Bowl experience at $149. That’s nearly $4.5 billion. That doesn’t include advertising revenue. There would be a ton of subscriber churn post-Super Bowl, for sure, but there would also be those who stay with the product and then pay for the annual subscription.
“I don’t think the question is about a single-game price point,” Mao said. “If the Super Bowl were to have an exclusive streaming future, it would first more likely be as part of a set of broader rights.”
When I posed the pricing point question to Nathanson, he said it was hard to figure out a definitive number.
“That’s a good question,” Nathanson said. “How many people paid $6 for a wild-card game pay-per-view on Peacock? It would obviously be multiples (more than that).”
We are unlikely to see the NFL head down this road in the short- or medium-term. But ask yourself if, back in 2014, you imagined that you would ever have to pay to watch an NFL playoff game.
Behind the scenes with the NFL on CBS: How stats and graphics get to your TV
• Major sports outlets always send a small army to the Super Bowl site. Las Vegas has amplified that. Here are the coverage plans for CBS Sports, DraftKings/VSiN, ESPN, NBC Sports and NFL Network.
• The challenge for the CBS Sports production team for Super Bowl LVIII, if Taylor Swift makes it to the game to watch Travis Kelce and the Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers, is navigating how often you incorporate images of the singer into the broadcast. I talked to previous Super Bowl producers about it.
• In case you missed it, here’s a deep dive on how Greg Olsen should approach the 2024 NFL season.
• If interested in how a beat reporter approaches covering a team in the Super Bowl, I did a 40-minute podcast with Nate Taylor, who covers the Chiefs for The Athletic. Tim Kawakami, The Athletic’s Bay Area columnist who has written on the 49ers for years, will be the guest Tuesday.
Why the Chiefs are the NFL’s blueprint and the 49ers are an outlier: Sando’s Pick Six
As Super Bowl week begins for Chiefs and 49ers, 10 compelling stories to follow
(Photo of a promotional display for Super Bowl LVIII on CBS outside of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)