Want to watch a Kansas City Chiefs game without cable? Streaming the NFL is confusing
Local Chiefs telecasts will always be carried on free local TV, but streaming them online is a different matter. Here's a guide to where — and why — you can watch Kansas City play this season.
Life for a Chiefs fan living in Kansas City is easy: You find out which local station is broadcasting that week's game, flip it on, mute the sound and turn up Mitch Holthus on the radio (optional), then just kick back and enjoy the game.
But what if you're part of the growing Chiefs Kingdom living outside the range of Kansas City TV signals? Well, there it gets complicated. And it's getting more complicated by the year, thanks to streaming rights and the NFL's desire to get into the mobile app space.
Before we get to that, though, may we suggest that before Thursday night's kickoff against the Chargers, local Chiefs fans take a moment to raise a beverage of their choice in tribute to the late Lamar Hunt?
TV rights are why the NFL prints money
The team's founder, and co-founder of the American Football League in 1959, Hunt came up with revenue sharing, and this is the idea that made the NFL the world-beater it is today.
Hunt convinced his fellow AFL owners that in order for their upstart league to survive, they would have to split all broadcast-rights revenue evenly. The first TV contract with ABC netted each AFL team $800,000 — enough for the Jets to outbid its NFL rivals and sign Alabama QB Joe Namath. Hunt's insight was so visionary that after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 (which Hunt negotiated), the NFL signed onto revenue sharing too.
The New York Yankees have a valuation of nearly six times that of the Royals, and can carry payrolls two to three times that of Kansas City, because their YES Network makes piles of money on Yankee games and they get to keep all the revenue, other than a small luxury tax paid to MLB.
Instead of haves and have-nots, the NFL's revenue-sharing scheme has created a league of haves, all the way down to the country's 69th-largest TV market, Green Bay-Appleton.
That kind of parity has raised the league's overall competitiveness. A high stakes matchup between two small-market clubs rarely happens in baseball. In the NFL it happens all the time—last season's AFC championship game, pitting Cincinnati (the 36th-largest market) vs. Kansas City (34th), for example.
And that's why revenues are skyrocketing for NFL video rights — especially with streaming channels now demanding a piece of the action.
How the NFL carves up TV rights
To understand how streaming can affect how you'll watch the Chiefs, it's helpful to understand the difference between local, regional and national NFL game telecasts.
Starting with ABC's "Monday Night Football" in the 1970s, the NFL has assigned the rights to certain games in prime time. This strategy proved so effective — it was one of the most popular shows on TV and gave the NFL a huge regular-season stage it never had before — that ESPN paid billions to the NFL to carve out another prime-time game, "Sunday Night Football."
NBC grabbed those rights in 2006, the same season that the NFL rolled out a third national telecast, "Thursday Night Football." As of this season, Amazon Prime Video is the exclusive home for "Thursday Night Football."
Daytime NFL games air on local TV, as they have since the 1950s. Games are assigned to either Fox or CBS affiliates, depending on what conference the away team belongs to.
The NFC package rights belong to Fox, while the package rights for the AFC — the Chiefs' conference — belong to CBS. When the Chiefs are playing on Sunday afternoon, the game is usually on CBS unless they are hosting an NFC team, in which case it's carried by Fox.
The list of stations carrying the "Chiefs Insider" TV show defines the team's regional base.
Every Chiefs game is carried by a free, over-the-air TV station in Kansas City for the local fans. So even if Prime Video has the "exclusive" rights to "Thursday Night Football," the game is still carried on local TV stations in the markets where the teams are based. Thursday's Chiefs-Chargers game will be carried on KSHB-TV, the NBC affiliate.
Local will always be free
This point may be confusing to Chiefs fans who have been bombarded for days by Amazon's promotion touting its new Prime Video NFL package. One would be forgiven for thinking that an Amazon Prime membership might be required to watch Patrick Mahomes do his thing this week and whenever his game is carried on streaming.
It's worth noting here that the NFL is one of the most privileged businesses in America. It is exempt from antitrust law, enjoys a specialized tax status and gets taxpayers to underwrite their stadiums.
These privileges could be wiped out very quickly were the NFL to start withholding local TV coverage of games. In 2015, under pressure from the federal government, the league finally agreed to drop its 42-year-old “blackout rule” that allowed it to ban the coverage of poorly-attended contests.
In other words, Chiefs games will always be carried in Kansas City for free on local TV. Always.
So how exactly are the new streaming-rights deals going to change fans' viewing habits?
What streaming services are getting
In 2021, the NFL signed a new round of long-term television deals — and this time streaming TV was in the mix.
Since the last round of deals, all of the league's broadcast partners had launched streaming services: Paramount, which owns CBS, launched Paramount+. Disney, which owns ABC, bought up most of Hulu. And NBC Universal launched Peacock.
What's more, Amazon made it clear that it was in the hunt for NFL rights to make its Prime Video streamer more alluring.
Under the new deal, regional broadcast rights will remain in place through 2033: NFC games on Fox, AFC games on CBS. "Sunday Night Football" remains on NBC and "Monday Night Football" stays at ESPN.
Now, however, all CBS games will also stream on its sister streamer Paramount+. If you subscribe to Paramount+ at either its ad-supported or mostly-ad-free tier, you can watch CBS coverage of regional Chiefs games on Paramount+, and that goes whether you are in Kansas City or not.
Yes, cord-cutters, you don't need an antenna on your roof to watch CBS telecasts of Chiefs games any longer. (Fox is a different story. Fox hasn't announced any plans to stream games from the NFC package on Tubi, its free streaming service.)
As mentioned before, Amazon grabbed the rights to "Thursday Night Football."
And although ESPN owns the rights to Monday Night Football, it will not be streaming those games to ESPN+, a service so limited it doesn't even offer the cable network's flagship show SportsCenter.
Only cable or satellite subscribers to ESPN can stream the games through their computers or the ESPN app.
The one great thing about the new NFL+ app
Earlier this summer the NFL created some confusion when it announced a new app, NFL+, replacing its old NFL Game Day app.
The app will stream all live local and national games at an attractive price of $29.99 a year. But read that again: all live local and national games.
If you use other sports streaming apps, you may have noticed the NFL is doing the exact opposite of the NBA or MLB. Those leagues make only out-of-market games available to their app users. But if the NFL tried that, it would undermine its lucrative regional deals with CBS ($2.1 billion per year) and Fox ($2.2 billion).
The NFL+ app isn’t doing local stations any favors by poaching their potential viewers, it would seem — but the NFL doesn’t have to answer to them.
If you want to watch those games on demand, you'll have to upgrade to the NFL+ Premium tier on the app, which costs $79.99 per year.
The NFL+ app is only available on mobile devices. But wait! Was that a dude watching NFL+ on his big screen TV in an official NFL+ TV commercial? It was!
NFL+ subscribers say you can't screencast live games from your mobile phone, but you can watch replays on a big screen, though that requires the premium upgrade.
So what is the one good thing about the new NFL+ app? With it, you can listen to the live audio feeds of any NFL game, from either the home broadcast team or the away. No restrictions. That means no matter where you are, Mitch Holthus's legendary play-by-play call of the Chiefs game is just a click away.