Dan Lovinger, NBC Sports executive vice president of advertising sales, confirmed that his team has closed the books on the Sept. 10 Texans-Chiefs game, an AFC quarterback duel that will inaugurate the long-awaited 2020 NFL season.
The showdown between the defending Super Bowl champions and a Houston squad that was bumped off by Patrick Mahomes and Co. during the second round of January’s AFC playoffs is expected to be one of NBC’s highest-rated broadcasts of 2020. Last year’s opener, a defensive skirmish between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, averaged 22.1 million viewers and a 12.9 household rating, making it the season’s third highest-rated prime time NFL matchup.
Excluding audience deficiency units, the average unit cost for 30 seconds of airtime on Sunday Night Football was $640,000 a pop, according to Standard Media Index estimates for 2019. Scatter rates were appreciably higher, as late buys often came priced north of $800,000 per half-minute. Over the course of its 19 prime-time NFL windows, NBC booked some $762 million in ad sales revenue last season, per SMI.
Lovinger said NBC is enjoying the spoils of a strong NFL ad market, as spend has been steady across the network’s fall football schedule. “We’re looking very strong across the board through September and October,” Lovinger said, before adding that demand is pacing ahead of where it usually is at this time of year.
In terms of categorical spend, NBC has seen some significant growth in spending by insurance companies, pharmaceutical brands and purveyors of consumer packaged goods. As with other NFL media partners, insurance does a lot of heavy lifting for NBC, which counts Geico, Progressive and USAA among the top backers of Sunday Night Football. Pharma and CPG spend has been up across the board during the six months of the coronavirus crisis, and when investments from brands like Tide, Gillette and Head & Shoulders are added up, Procter & Gamble is one of NBC’s top 10 NFL advertisers.
Also returning for another season are Sunday Night Football’s title sponsors, which include Hyundai—which has helmed NBC’s weekly kickoff show since 2018—and halftime sponsor Toyota.
NBC expects to see at least one of the presidential hopefuls take advantage of SNF’s mammoth reach while keeping with the shift of political ad dollars from targeted markets in swing states to the far broader deliveries made possible via coast-to-coast TV. According to iSpot.tv estimates, the Biden for President camp has spent nearly $10 million on national TV time since the NBA season resumed on July 30, with pro hoops coverage raking in more of that investment than anything else on the tube.
If Thursday night’s opener will be strangely subdued—attendance at the normally raucous Arrowhead Stadium will be limited to 22% capacity, which works out to a live audience of just 16,000 fans—home viewers won’t be seeing any CGI boosters filling out the bowl. Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli said NBC would forgo the faux-fan fixes that have been a staple of this summer’s Major League Baseball broadcasts.
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at virtual fans…and [they] fall short,” Gaudelli said during a Thursday press call. After explaining that technical limitations often make the computer-generated enthusiasts in the stands disappear when cutting from one camera to another—a transition that is both jarring and slightly ridiculous—the SNF producer decided against engaging in any digital trickery. “It becomes a little bit of a gimmick, and this is not a shot at Fox because I think what they’ve done [with their MLB coverage] is tremendous, but it’s just not realistic. So, you have fans, you don’t have fans, and at the end of the day, it just didn’t feel right to me.”
Gaudelli added that one of the challenges of shooting in a near-empty stadium is the necessity of “trying to avoid reminding people that there’s nobody here.” That said, the NFL Films crew will be creating a soundtrack for each of this season’s broadcasts, creating loops culled from four years of crowd noise as it was recorded in 30 stadiums. “They’ve hired an audio engineer in each city to basically score the game as it’s going on,” Gaudelli said. “When we’re in Kansas City Thursday night, we will have an Arrowhead sound, and then there will be an operator that will add the accents for touchdowns or turnovers or sacks or great catches or drops or things of that nature.”
Lovinger is optimistic that the NFL is about to embark on a long, successful season, noting that he is particularly encouraged by the crisis-free relaunch of the pro golf season. “I look to the job Jay Monahan has done with the PGA Tour, and I think he’s proven that, with the proper precautions, you can safely move around massive numbers of people thousands of miles every week,” Lovinger said. “Golf’s not a bubble sport, and they’ve managed to make it work. … I think the NFL will also make it work—and they’ll put a great product on the field every week.
SNF color commentator Cris Collinsworth shares Lovinger’s optimism. “I am more than a little bit excited,” Collinsworth said during the Thursday presser. “I can’t remember a year in which I’ve been more excited about the start of football than I am this year.”
“This has been, by all accounts, a very strange year in 2020,” Collinsworth said. “To get something back to normal—to get anything back to normal—and to watch the world champion Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes going at perhaps the second-most exciting quarterback in the league in Deshaun Watson, it just feels good.”
The Texans and Chiefs kick off Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC.