For the NFL’s TV partners, the current ad sales marketplace all but demands a certain suspension of disbelief, or as Seth Winter puts it, the clamor for inventory is so intense that the networks are effectively in a “pinch-yourself scenario.” Having ascertained that he’s fully awake and not in the grips of some sort of fever dream, the executive VP of sports sales for Fox Sports said he’s getting ready to start selling airtime in Super Bowl LVII.
“We’re planning to go out into the market to begin selling Super Bowl spots next week,” Winter said Monday during a phone interview.
In the event the Roman numerals are throwing you off, what Winter is saying is that he’s looking to start shifting units in the 2023 broadcast, the one that’s set to air 18 months from now, or a full calendar year after NBC hosts this season’s capper in Los Angeles.
Winter said that since NBC was effectively sold out of its more proximate NFL title tilt—by mid-July, the network had already booked 85% of its in-game inventory, a milestone it usually doesn’t reach until the month leading into the Big Game—it made perfect sense to engage with marketers who were looking a bit ahead of the transactional curve.
To say that this is rather unprecedented is to traffic in a realm of vast understatement. But Winter explains that he’s already had a few calls come in from advertisers anxious to reserve a spot in the 57th Super Bowl, which will be Fox’s last under its legacy NFL rights deal.
Winter’s early-bird gambit is a response to what is being called the strongest NFL ad sales market in well over a decade. Already the priciest spots on the dial, in-game units in national NFL broadcasts are fetching record fees, with premiums up in the double digits (on a percentile basis) versus 2020.
And perhaps no advertisers are paying a steeper price to align themselves with the NFL than the league’s newly anointed sportsbook partners. Under the terms established earlier this summer, in-game spots touting the likes of BetMGM, PointsBet and WynnBET will be limited to six units per broadcast, a span that includes pre- and postgame buys. In capping the number of spots, the NFL not only hopes to lessen the blow for viewers who may not be wholly enamored with gambling, but it also has created artificial scarcity for the new category.
In accordance with the age-old dynamics of supply-and-demand, the restrictions on air time will allow the networks to inflate the costs of the units purchased by the sportsbooks. And while it’s bad form to soak a Geico or a T-Mobile, it’s standard practice to put the squeeze on a bunch of newcomers; in a sense, the nosebleed rates are the TV market’s version of the veterans hazing the rookies in training camp. Only instead of being coerced into singing the alma mater while sporting a new Boo Radley hairdo, the gambling sites can expect to pay top dollar for the privilege of reaching TV’s largest audience.
If Winter’s team in the coming weeks are unlikely to sell a whole bunch of inventory for a game that’s a year-and-a-half down the temporal turnpike, the fact that Fox is already open for business speaks volumes about the state of the NFL TV market. In the near term, all eyes are going to be on the fall scatter market, during which latecomers may be required to pay as much as a 25% increase over the prices that were established in the June upfront bazaar.
All told, the broadcasters expect ratings to return to 2019 levels, which would work out to an average of some 24.3 million viewers for the Sunday afternoon national windows, about 16.5 million for the single-headers and some 20 million for NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Despite the ongoing atomization of the traditional TV audience, overall deliveries are likely to be boosted by improved out-of-home deliveries, as Americans flood back to their weekend watering holes and in-house gatherings.