It was perhaps the most yearned-for Super Bowl matchup of the past decade, and while a certain high-profile preseason defection all but guarantees that Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers will never go head-to-head for the Lombardi Trophy, their impending showdown in Sunday’s NFC Championship game is a pretty nifty substitute.
The convergence of the two most celebrated quarterbacks on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field is the sort of thing that can help a broadcast network generate a whole bunch of bonus ad sales revenue—and in a hurry. According to media buyers, Fox’s going rate for a 30-second in-game spot for the Bucs-Packers game jumped from an initial unit cost of $1.75 million to north of $2 million a pop once Sunday’s QB pairing became apparent.
That Fox has been able to command such a premium from latecomers for the early conference championship window is a function of Brady and Rodgers’s pedigree and advertisers’ wish to cash in on this long-deferred midwinter meeting. Over the past 14 years, the signal callers have had three near-misses (2017, 2015, 2008), but each time Brady’s Patriots advanced to the Big Game, Rodgers and the Packers failed to get past the penultimate round.
In spending more for the early game, investors in a sense are thumbing their noses at American viewing habits and two decades of ratings data. The evening title tilt has out-delivered the afternoon game seven times in the last 10 years, and having established a 16-4 record going back to 2001, the later broadcast has put up the higher number 80% of the time. That said, recency bias may have emboldened some advertisers, as the afternoon game has been the bigger draw in three out of the last six doubleheaders.
One national TV buyer on Thursday suggested that anyone looking for a late buy in Fox’s game should act fast, as the network is believed to be down to its last available spot.
Because relative scarcity almost always emboldens the media marketplace—the principles of supply-and-demand economics maintain that the combination of shrinking ratings points and a steady appetite for in-game commercial inventory adds up to higher ad rates—the novelty of a Brady-Rodgers clash and the ongoing erosion of the sports-TV audience have conspired to steroidically swell the cost of an in-game unit. Barring a 2006 blowout that saw second-year backup Rodgers fill in for an injured Brett Favre, the future Hall of Famers have met only three times.
Brady has a 2-1 lifetime advantage in what has evolved into a long-distance rivalry of sorts between football’s two chillest weirdos. Rodgers got the upper hand in their first meeting, amassing a 112.6 passer rating in Green Bay’s 26-21 win over New England back in 2014, which currently stands as the most-watched of the three contests. Per Nielsen, CBS’s broadcast averaged 30.9 million viewers and a 17.6 rating, making it the highest-rated Sunday game of that season.
Although neither QB put together Canton-worthy numbers in their second run-in, Brady’s Pats won handily 31-17. That Sunday Night Football broadcast averaged 23.7 million viewers and a 13.7 rating, which marked a high-water mark for NBC’s 2018 NFL campaign. The most recent collision, on Oct. 18, was even more one-sided; on a decidedly off day for Rodgers—he cobbled together an anemic 35.4 passer rating—the Bucs racked up 38 unanswered points in a game that was almost wholly devoid of suspense.
Incidentally, that sort of blowout will tend to have a destabilizing effect on a game’s TV ratings, no matter how massive the audience is at kickoff. This holds true even on Championship Sunday, as the lowest-rated conference title broadcasts tend to coincide with the most lopsided on-field results; for example, the least-watched NFC Championship game of the last 20 years was the 2001 edition, during which the Giants stomped the horns off the Vikings by a 41-0 margin. Other low-rated title tilts include Colts-Patriots in 2015 (Brady & Co. won by 39 points) and Bears-Saints in 2007 (Chicago prevailed by 25).
Conversely, the two highest-rated games (and four of the top six) were settled in overtime. The late time slot and a certain white-knuckled brand of competitive balance are generally the two most crucial factors in determining whether a conference championship game will average north of 50 million viewers—a thing that has happened nine times going back to 2001.
Despite the October blowout, a catastrophic breakdown of Green Bay’s offensive attack would seem highly unlikely. That autumn collapse aside, 2020 has been a banner year for Rodgers, who notched a personal best completion rate (71%) and threw for a career-high 48 touchdowns. Brady connected on 40 touchdown tosses, the second-highest tally in his 21-year career, behind only the Beast Mode 50 TD year that was 2007. Both veterans are playing in rare air, and Green Bay’s only getting three points at home. It may not be the Super Bowl, but for fans who’ve been waiting for these worlds to finally collide in the postseason, this makes for one hell of a consolation prize.
Altogether, Rodgers and Brady have appeared in 12 of the 20 most-watched conference championship games of the 21st century, with the latter accounting for nine of these high-value broadcasts.
None of which is to discount what CBS has cooking in the late Sunday slot. The host of Super Bowl LV will close out the playoffs with an air show featuring two of the league’s youngest arms in Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Buffalo’s Josh Allen. This marks the third consecutive time Mahomes will line up under center in the AFC Championship game; his first bite of the apple, a 37-31 overtime loss to Brady’s Pats, scared up a staggering 53.9 million viewers and a 27.5 rating in the late 2019 window.
As it so happens, Mahomes’s Championship Sunday debut currently stands as the second most-watched AFC title game in the last 43 years, trailing only the 2011 Jets-Steelers skirmish (54.9 million).
Buyers said CBS was booking in-game units at a going rate of between $1.8 million and $1.9 million. The opening kickoff for the Bills-Chiefs game is set for Sunday at 6:40 p.m. ET.