Beyond money, NFL jumped at Christmas games on Netflix for 2 key reasons

When the NFL first set out to design its 2024 regular-season schedule, the schedule-making team didn’t expect a Christmas Day game.

Sure, six teams faced off on Monday of Christmas last season. The San Francisco 49ers hosted the Baltimore Ravens in a high-stakes matchup of conference championship-bound teams the night of Dec. 25, a ratings bonanza.

But to play on a Wednesday?

“Last year at this time, we weren't really thinking about Christmas Wednesday as we were looking to the 2024 schedule,” NFL vice president of broadcast planning Mike North said. “But when you saw the viewership numbers that you saw for Christmas for the tripleheader last year and the tripleheader the year before, and I think it's four of the last five years that we played on Christmas, the fans have spoken.

“They want the games there and our broadcast partners want the games there.”

So the NFL didn’t just bend its player health and safety rules to schedule a cable game — the league went a step further, viewing the game slots as a chance to further its digital and global footprints.

For the first time in history, Netflix will live-broadcast sports games.

“It's a global opportunity for us [with] one of the biggest video platforms to the entire world,” NFL executive vice president Hans Schroeder said of Netflix. “So we really are excited about adding a partner, adding continued wide reach not only here in the States domestically but globally in a way that is consistent with our tradition of continuing to innovate and evolve.

“If we're building popularity of football, we're building interest in football, we're building viewership — that accrues to all our partners’ benefit over time.”

In an effort to maximize appeal, the NFL gave the streaming service four teams who qualified for the playoffs last season, including the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - DECEMBER 25: Jack Jones #18 of the Las Vegas Raiders returns an interception for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on December 25, 2023 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The Raiders' Jack Jones got to play the role of Grinch on Christmas against the Chiefs in Arrowhead in a Las Vegas upset of Kansas City. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Chiefs will kick off at the Pittsburgh Steelers at 1 p.m. ET on Netflix, followed by a 4:30 p.m. ET matchup of the Baltimore Ravens at the Houston Texans. The earlier game times intentionally factor in overseas audiences.

Each of the teams will play on Saturday before their Wednesday contest to give a five-day break between games akin to teams who follow a Sunday game with "Thursday Night Football."

“That Sunday-Saturday-Wednesday sequence was going to be challenging [and] we had to pick the right four teams,” North said. “Four teams that all played each other that were all going to be playoff relevant that were all going to be healthy to hold down four national windows.”

Broadcast partners jumped at the opportunity.

“There was a lot of interest,” North said. “It was a competitive bid.”

Ultimately, Netflix’s bid offered the NFL two key factors beyond the financial boon.

First, the NFL has continued to tiptoe away from its cable-television model. The league already broadcast a playoff game exclusively on NBC’s Peacock streaming service in January, a paid home that nonetheless drew a larger audience than the previous year’s broadcast of the same timed wild-card game, the league said.

Second, the NFL increasingly looks to increase its presence outside of the United States. Last December, team owners approved the growth of the international game slate from four games (in addition to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ annual visit to London-area Wembley Stadium) to eight games. The league will play its first game in South America when the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers face off Week 1 on Sept. 6.

That contest, like the Christmas ones, speaks to the NFL’s creeping growth: The Eagles and Packers’ season opener will be played on Friday, the league’s first Week 1 Friday game since 1970. It will be broadcast exclusively on Peacock.

Roughly 85% of NFL games will continue to be broadcast on free, over-the-air television, league executives emphasized on the call amid concerns about accessibility. All NFL games will continue to be broadcast on television in each team’s home market, NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller said.

But nationally, fans should increasingly expect to need streaming service for a handful of big national games. Netflix’s contract with the NFL includes a Christmas game broadcast in 2025 on Thursday and 2026 on Friday. The NFL will give its other Thursday Christmas game next year to Amazon Prime, which already broadcasts 15-plus games per year with the Thursday night slate.

“We know broadcast is critically important,” Schroeder said. “We know the reach it provides is really important, that's why we're so committed. But we also see some of these new and emerging platforms. Netflix is far from new and emerging, but on the digital side, they already can deliver very wide, very scaled audiences.

“I think we're really excited about what they'll deliver on Christmas.”