The NFL’s TV partners managed to power their way through the 2020-21 season more or less unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic, as the league’s successful staging of each of its 256 scheduled games helped keep the advertising revenue rolling right along. But for NBC’s Thanksgiving misfortunes—postponement of a primetime Ravens-Steelers showcase denied the network a $70 million payday—the NFL TV juggernaut went off without a hitch, and by the time Tom Brady had earned his seventh Super Bowl ring, Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN had generated a combined $3.9 billion in ad sales.
Soaring in-game ad pricing and a bonus week of action should pour even more cash into the networks’ coffers in 2021.
While the regular season ratings fell 7% versus the year-ago period, with the NFL’s national and regional windows averaging 15.4 million viewers, down from 16.5 million in 2019, the declines were negligible within the context of the overall TV marketplace. As the NFL was putting up the big numbers, broadcast prime was floundering; per Nielsen live-plus-same day data, the 73 scripted series that aired on the Big Four networks last season averaged just 3.63 million viewers. That marked an 18% drop compared to the 4.44 million average of the 2019-20 broadcast season.
The only scripted TV series that still occasionally tops the 10 million-viewer mark is the CBS procedural NCIS, a show now heading into its 19th season. Per Nielsen, the median age of the NCIS viewer was a superannuated 68.9 years—approximately 83% of those tuning in last season had aged out of CBS’ core adults 25-54 demo—while the median age for NBC’s Sunday Night Football audience was 53.1 years.
The NFL’s stranglehold on the TV marketplace is similarly apparent when looking at the vital 18-49 demo. Take NFL games out of the equation and Fox (0.8), CBS (0.7) and NBC (0.7) last season each served up their lowest-ever primetime ratings. In other words, without football, the league’s broadcast partners on a nightly basis fail to reach 1% of the audience most sought-after by marketers. Sunday Night Football, meanwhile, averaged a 5.0 rating in the dollar demo.
The gulf between the NFL and everything else on the tube gets starker still when you isolate the Sunday afternoon national windows. Last season, Fox’s big “America’s Game of the Week” package averaged 22.8 million viewers, giving the network bragging rights to its 12th straight year as the host of TV’s most-watched program. CBS’s own coast-to-coast window averaged 21.4 million viewers. Together, the two networks accounted for the 15 most-watched NFL games of the regular season, and 18 of the top 20.
For all the reasons cited above—and a whole mess of others related to the economy at large—the NFL’s media partners are on pace to scare up even bigger bucks during the coming season. According to Standard Media Index data, $2.77 billion of the last year’s in-game spend was captured during the regular season, a figure which marked a 3% improvement compared to the previous campaign’s haul. Given an additional week of play, an uptick in the number of in-game ad units on offer and the flood of higher-priced inventory being sold off to the likes of FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM and PointsBet, the NFL ad market is as strong as it’s been in recent memory.
If the average increase (+3%) in the cost of buying a 30-second in-game ad unit was relatively subdued a year ago, the summer sell-off suggests that broadcasters are taking full advantage of the NFL’s unparalleled reach. According to media buyers, units sold during the upfront fetched a premium north of 10%, which translates into big gains for the four networks.
NBC, which last year priced much of its advance units at around $750,000 a pop, has booked SNF inventory for as much as $845,000. The going rate for a sliver of air time in the Thanksgiving game is up around the $950,000 mark, while the must-see Brady vs. Belichick showdown in Week 4 is fetching more than $1 million per unit.
Fox’s overall portfolio—which includes its Sunday mashup of regional and national windows, as well as its final go-around with the Thursday Night Football package—is averaging around $565,000 per unit, with the “America’s Game of the Week” spots pricing in the vicinity of $885,000. CBS’s combined Sunday football menu is averaging out at around $475,000 for each half-minute (as is the case with Fox, its national broadcasts are priced accordingly), while time in ESPN’s Monday Night Football slate sold in the upfront for around $325,000.
Relative newcomer ABC, meanwhile, has been moving units in its first MNF simulcast of 2021 (Ravens-Raiders, Sept. 13) at around the $465,000 mark. While the matchups for the network’s Jan. 8 NFL doubleheader won’t be announced until later in the season, ABC is likely to sell that inventory at scatter rates. According to Rick Bruner, who serves as Standard Media Index’s head of insights and analytics, scatter pricing during the 2020 NFL season was up 15% compared to the rates set in the upfront. In other words, those two Week 18 games should make ABC and ESPN a bundle.
Bruner calls the NFL a “safe bet” for advertisers, despite the considerable cost of aligning one’s brand with the Shield. “The NFL is the king of the shared media experience for Americans, and in terms of reach, it remains TV’s driving mechanism,” Bruner said. “Those shared media moments, where generations of viewers are all watching the same screen, are increasingly hard to come by, especially as TV continues to lose share to streaming options. For that alone, NFL games are well worth the investment.”
While the strength of the NFL market is cause for celebration among the network ad sales teams, no assessment of the overall revenue take will be possible until the end of the regular season. (If demand for scatter inventory remains as robust in November as it is at the moment, the sales bosses are going to start carrying around corporate credit cards with the legend “Limit: The Sky” embossed on the front.) At the same time, the networks are going to want to see a flattening out on the ratings side, as ADUs, or audience deficiency units, can really eat a hole in the ad sales totals. On average, makegoods accounted for nearly 20% of all regular season in-game spots, although ESPN remained at the low end of the scale (5%).
That said, with an average take of $22 million in sales per national broadcast, the networks enjoy a great deal of leeway with regard to ADUs. As was made manifest by the $105 billion spring rights renewals, the inherent value of the NFL makes it a property no network can afford to go without.