Despite fan grumbles, Peacock scores 23M viewers for exclusive stream of NFL Wild Card playoff matchup

There may have been plenty of grumbling about Peacock’s exclusive stream of an NFL AFC Wild Card playoff game over the weekend, but the match up between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Miami Dolphins Saturday night scored big in audience for the streaming service – attracting an average of 23 million viewers.

Comcast said the game – which was the first-ever exclusively live streamed NFL playoff game - marks the most live-streamed event in U.S. history. Viewership was up 6% compared to last year’s Saturday Primetime AFC Wild Card Game. Last year’s game had 21.8 million viewers on NBC, Peacock, NBC Sports Digital and NFL Digital.

As the Chiefs overtook the Dolphins in a 26-7 win, Comcast cited Nielsen data for the stream with a total of 27.6 million viewers. The second quarter, between 9:15-9:30 pm ET, had the biggest draw, during which viewership peaked at an average of 24.6 million, including out-of-home viewing.

The 23 million viewer count includes not only Peacock but also coverage from NBC stations in Miami and Kansas City that were available for local fans and on mobile with NFL+.  Across those three platforms, Nielsen data combined with preliminary first party data, Comcast said the exclusive AFC Wild Card game averaged 26.3 million viewers.

“From NBC Sports and Peacock to the Comcast team, our entire company worked seamlessly to plan for this game and executed flawlessly to deliver a streaming experience with the NFL on a scale that’s never been done before. It’s a very proud moment,” said Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast, in a statement.

And it helped drive the single largest day ever for the Peacock streaming service in terms of audience usage, engagement and time spent, with Comcast touting a record 16.3 million concurrent devices.

NBCU’s Peacock also had a lot riding on the game, which it paid a reported $110 million for exclusive rights. As reported by the New York Times ahead of the game, Peacock faced pressure on multiple fronts including ensuring technical capabilities for the relatively smaller streamer to support streams of a first-round NFL playoff games that can bring in audiences averaging nearly 30 million people, and uptake and willingness of fans to tune in, among others.

Viewership for the NFL Wild Card game was not certain, as the league had never put a playoff matchup exclusively on a streaming service before. And there were plenty of people unhappy with the move ahead of time, as it means consumers who don’t already subscribe to Peacock had to pony up at least $5.99 to watch the game.

It’s not the first NFL football showdown that’s moved to streaming.  Amazon’s Prime Video has been airing exclusive coverage of Thursday Night Football, and YouTube and YouTube TV are now home to the NFL Sunday Ticket package. However, with sports rights increasingly fragmented across services, and the Chiefs and Dolphins representing a first round of championship playoffs, some felt the need to subscribe to and pay for yet another streaming service to get in on the highly-watched football action added another point of friction for what’s already become a frustrating sports viewing experience.

During a MoffettNathanson TMT investor conference last May when the deal was first announced, analyst Craig Moffett called the move to put a playoff game on streaming “sort of a seismic thing.”

“It's one thing for Amazon to put on Thursday night games of the Jaguars or Panthers, it’s a different thing to say I'm going to take a playoff game and make it exclusively available on Peacock,” Moffett said in May, while also suggesting an NFL playoff game on streaming could accelerate cord cutting as it takes another marquee sporting event off of linear.

At last tally Peacock counted 30 million subscribers. Comcast has not disclosed how the game impacted subscriber signups or broken out viewership of new versus existing customers. And although viewership was strong, just how many came for the game – and importantly, how many will stick around after, remains to be seen.

Peacock is a relatively smaller streaming service compared to some industry competitors, but parent Comcast has pegged the eventual shift of all sports to streaming as an element of several business strategy avenues, including reach from NBC and capabilities and programming for Peacock.

In addition to NBC and Peacock that includes its broadband connectivity business that provides underlying support for streaming, which also saw a Saturday game-day surge thanks to the playoff game.  According to Comcast, the NFL Wild Card game drove the largest U.S. internet usage ever on a single day and was the largest internet event-ever for Comcast, consuming 30% of traffic during the game.

During Q3 earnings Comcast President Michael Cavanagh suggested part of the company’s broadband and Peacock strategy is that all sports, over the next many years, will find their way to streaming.

“And that’s going to require more bandwidth, and that’s going to require and create an opportunity for us to have the superior product in the market,” Cavanagh said in October regarding its broadband network.

Comcast executives have previously pointed of the power of live sport streaming, as Amazon Prime Video’s TNF coverage alone shifted the cable operator’s highest-traffic internet usage day from Sunday to Thursday. The NFL games comprise roughly 25% of all its internet traffic on Thursday night, according to Comcast.

As for the NFL, it’s been looking to streaming as it works to attract new and younger audiences while generating lucrative sports rights deals. The league touted success of its partnership with Peacock following the game.

“We couldn’t be prouder of our partnership with Peacock and are thrilled with the results of the first-ever exclusively live streamed NFL playoff game,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a statement. “To best serve our fans, we need to ensure games are available to them as their viewing habits change and this includes digital distribution as we continue to help shape the future of the sports and entertainment industry.”