Apr 15, 2023; San Jose, California, USA; Fans watch the NBA playoff game between the Sacramento Kings and the Golden State Warriors on the television in the outdoor bar before the game between the San Jose Earthquakes and Sporting Kansas City at PayPal Park. Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

If not for Aaron Rodgers, the biggest story in sports media this week would have been the NFL’s first-ever streaming-exclusive playoff game.

Now that this weekend’s postseason slate is coming into focus, many are coming to terms with the reality that unless you live in Kansas City or Miami, you’re going to need a subscription to watch Saturday night’s game between the Chiefs and Dolphins.

Reaction hasn’t been hard to find and most of it has been negative. Bill Simmons has already predicted the experience will be a “disaster.” Chiefs defensive end Charles Omenihu is gifting fans Peacock subscriptions.

But to paraphrase “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “whether you like it or you don’t like it, learn to love it.” Because streaming-exclusive games aren’t going anywhere.

In fact, they’re only going to get bigger. And they’re also hardly anything new.

As networks attempt to ween themselves off of the traditional television model and streamers emerge as legitimate competitors, they’re all trying to find a way to make their products not just ancillary, but necessary. At this point, if you’re a fan of UFC, European soccer or WWE, you already need at least one streaming service for the full experience. Even the NFL has already been airing its weekly Thursday Night Football game on Amazon’s Prime Video for the last two years, while the 2023 season marked the first in which Google’s YouTube TV owned the rights to the NFL Sunday Ticket and RedZone packages.

Although the NFL has clearly been signaling that its future is digital and not linear, for whatever reason, the idea of a streaming-exclusive playoff game seems to be an inflection point for fans. While many already had access to Prime Video as a part of their previous Amazon subscriptions, plenty of fans will be forced to choose between paying for a subscription to Peacock or missing a primetime playoff matchup between the defending Super Bowl champions and one of the league’s most dynamic offenses.

That’s the bet that NBC is making — that for all the handwringing about having to do so, enough fans will fork over the $5.99 monthly fee to make moving the game from broadcast television to Peacock worth its while. In an interview with the New York Post, NBC Sports president Rick Cordella insisted that this isn’t “pay-per-view.” But for many fans who wouldn’t be signing up for Peacock if not for Saturday’s game — and might even cancel their subscriptions immediately after it — that’s a distinction without much of a difference.

But just as important as how many people sign up to watch the game on Saturday will be shattering the perception that all NFL playoff games are always available via traditional means. After all, this isn’t just a one-time experiment so much as it is the next step in both the league and network’s long-term strategy and vision.

NBC didn’t pay a reported $110 million price tag and the NFL didn’t hand over one of its valuable matchups just to see what might happen. And even before seeing what happens on Saturday, there has already been discussion about the league adding another streaming-exclusive postseason game in the future.

Even if Saturday is a total flop (and I’m skeptical it will be), the NFL and NBC are more likely to use it as a learning experience for future streaming exclusives than they are to totally abandon their streaming aspirations. And it likely won’t be long until the league’s fellow network partners — CBS, Fox and Disney — make their own streaming-only plays.

On multiple occasions, former ESPN president and Meadowlark Media co-founder John Skipper has theorized that one day, the Super Bowl will be behind a paywall. To many, it seemed like a crazy suggestion.

After Saturday, it will only be a few rounds away.

About Ben Axelrod

Ben Axelrod is a veteran of the sports media landscape, having most recently worked for NBC's Cleveland affiliate, WKYC. Prior to his time in Cleveland, he covered Ohio State football and the Big Ten for outlets including Cox Media Group, Bleacher Report, Scout and Rivals.