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The NFL Owns Saturday Night

Jan. 22’s Packers-49ers Divisional Playoff game on FOX didn’t have the same sizzle as Chiefs-Bills one day later on CBS. But it still set a stunning TV ratings milestone.

Live sports on television — or on streaming platforms, VR devices, or the metaverse thingamajigger the kids are on about — are ratings gold. It is known, and it’s why broadcast partners pony up billions of dollars at a time to secure the rights to everything from World Cup soccer to combat sports to Formula 1.

But in this part of the world, the NFL stays the king, both as a television product and an all-encompassing nexus of cultural fascination. No one’s allowed to be surprised, then, that Sunday’s Chiefs-Bills instant classic averaged 42.7 million US viewers on CBS platforms, peaking at over 50 million, making it the most-watched Divisional Playoff game in five years.

But that’s not the most important TV ratings number of all. As FOX Sports Executive Vice President and Head of Strategy Michael Mulvihill notes, the buried lede comes from Packers-49ers one day before:

Wow. Best Divisional Round ratings in five years, you say? We’ll see that milestone and raise you the single best Saturday night TV ratings of any kind in nearly three entire decades.

When was the last time you thought about *checks notes* the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer? For the record, those Games took place eight months before Packers running back Aaron Jones was born, two years before 49ers star Deebo Samuel was born, four years before Green Bay’s AJ Dillon was born, and more than six years before Niners heir apparent QB Trey Lance was born. Head coaches Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur were barely in high school and not yet old enough to drive.

We’ve long associated Saturdays with college football, and rightly so. Across the association football world, Soccer Saturday is its own institution. But let’s not mince words about what happened on Jan. 22.

The NFL planted its flag and staked its claim to Saturday with one snowy, down-to-the-wire contest at Lambeau Field that saw Shanahan’s 49ers steal one from LaFleur’s Pack in scintillating fashion. And it’s just about impossible to imagine any programming — live sports, Dancing with the Stars, WWE relocating the Royal Rumble to the moon — knocking it from its perch.

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