With less than a week to go before the 2020 NFL season kicks off in an uncharacteristically subdued Arrowhead Stadium, the ritual of selling off the in-game commercial inventory is arguably the only aspect of the fall TV marketplace that might be characterized as “normal.”
Little wonder. The NFL’s hegemony over the airwaves is as well-established as Bill Belichick’s penchant for sleeveless hoodies, and given the state of the broadcast primetime schedule and the fact that 41% of college football’s FBS schools are sitting out the fall, the league is pretty much the only game in town for marketers looking to sell sedans or insurance policies or assembly-line hamburgers.
While more than a few brands are understandably anxious about committing to an enterprise that may be derailed or scuttled altogether by a coronavirus outbreak, the consensus says that it’s better to risk a disruption in your fourth-quarter marketing strategy than to preemptively forfeit your share in TV’s last great necessity.
According to network execs and media buyers surveyed by Sportico, the NFL’s somewhat-delayed summertime bazaar is now effectively in lockstep with last season’s pace.
Dollar volume is steady, the average unit costs are about where they were a year ago, and the amount of inventory still available is in keeping with last fall’s levels. Depending on the package and the network, in-game sellout levels are hovering between 80% and 85%; spots that aren’t claimed before the season’s first 11-hour Sunday juggernaut gets underway on Sept. 13 will simply be reserved for scatter, ad industry argot for time sold closer to the live airdate.
While marketers who choose to cool their heels a bit before lining up to haggle at the NFL ad sales souk will likely do so out of an abundance of caution, failure to lock in airtime in September could lead to paying a premium in October. NFL scheduling czar Howard Katz and his team have front-loaded the TV timetable with must-see matchups—NBC’s first three Sunday Night Football games feature five of the top 10 biggest draws of 2019 (Cowboys, Pats, Seahawks, Packers, Saints) and a representative of the nation’s No. 2 media market (Rams). Should the various national windows perform as expected, the cost of entry will only be that much higher.
According to Standard Media Index data, Sunday night stragglers last season paid a 21% premium for NBC’s scatter units, as the average in-game unit cost jumped from an upfront rate of $619,000 per 30-second spot to $750,000 a pop in the tighter fall market. A similar dynamic held sway for games in the Sunday 4:20 p.m. ET window shared by Fox and CBS; as has been the case for a decade, that weekly showcase is the most-watched, highest-rated program on TV, and it’s priced accordingly.
For those who’ve invested in NFL units in much the same way they would have in any other year, pragmatism won the day. “As much as any sort of interruption or cancellation of [scheduled NFL games] would be hell on a few of our clients, the risk is maybe overblown,” said one national TV buyer. “It’s not like the networks are going to hang you out to dry if things go sideways. They’re not just going to all of a sudden change the rules and keep your money even if the games don’t happen.”
At the same time, if there’s nowhere on the network to “re-express” a client’s money, a cash refund isn’t going to do much good for the marketer that depends on racking up a whole lot of fourth-quarter impressions. And the lack of viable replacement inventory is a very real concern heading into the fall, given the thrown-together nature of the primetime schedule. As most scripted production remains on hold, broadcasters have been reduced to serving up a dog’s breakfast of game shows, low-rated reality fare, Canadian procedurals and a number of midseason dramas that have been gathering dust since the May 2019 upfronts.
Then again, even if the full complement of entertainment options were ready to roll this fall, there’s nothing on the tube that comes within spitting distance of the NFL’s Sunday deliveries.
The aforementioned national afternoon window on Fox/CBS last season averaged 24.3 million viewers and a 13.4 household rating, while NBC’s primetime extravaganza averaged 20 million viewers and an 11.3 rating. By way of contrast, the average delivery for the 79 scripted series that aired on the Big Four nets during the 2019-20 campaign was a meager 4.55 million viewers.
“There is no contingency plan,” said one network executive. “You can’t make up for the loss of all those ratings points. No, I should say, you can, but you’d have to piece together dozens of [impressions] here and there, some on TV, some on digital, before you’d reach an NFL-sized audience. Especially with what’s happening at the college level…. You just can’t replace this stuff.”
Should the NFL’s luck and testing protocols hold, CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN can expect to rake in a combined $3.7 billion in ad sales revenue this season, per SMI estimates. When allowances for make-goods were factored in, the average unit cost for a half-minute of time across the four networks last season worked out to around $424,000. At this stage in the game, pricing and dollar volume are on par with the analogous period in 2019.
As one might expect, there’s a very close correlation between TV’s most free-spending advertisers and the roster of brands that funnel the most cash into Sunday football broadcasts. According to iSpot.tv estimates, among the companies that snapped up the greatest number of in-game spots last season were Amazon, Verizon, Procter & Gamble, Geico, Apple, General Motors, Progressive and State Farm. The first three advertisers listed are also official NFL sponsors.
That the NFL’s most steadfast backers weren’t particularly vulnerable to the dictates of this spring’s lockdown economy goes a long way toward explaining why their in-game spend is at 2019 levels. As America put itself on hold, Amazon’s delivery and video services flourished, and the consumer packaged goods giant P&G saw its stateside sales jump 19% in the most recent quarter.
Procter, which traffics in products that everyone uses—deodorant, dish soap, toilet paper—also boasts an arsenal of household cleaning brands. The company was practically designed to withstand a pandemic, a fact that isn’t lost on network ad sales bosses. TV’s perennial top spender last year dumped $781 million into broadcasters’ coffers, while placing another $933 million on ad-supported cable nets.
Buyers say that spend by the FAANG set (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) has more than offset the absence of movie studio dollars. The NFL’s broadcast partners are also enjoying a surge of activity, care of the top insurance companies. Every few years, the Geicos, Progressives and State Farms go to the mattresses in an all-out marketing war, and that recurring battle for market share always leaves the networks flush. In a time of head-spinning uncertainty, the people who wield the actuarial tables are going all-in on what may be the only safe bet on the table.