The NFL has renewed its media rights deals with network partners CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN, in a multibillion-dollar series of moves that will keep TV’s most lucrative programming on the air through the end of the 2033 season. At the same time, the league has an eye trained on the digital future, shifting the Thursday Night Football package from its broadcast roots to Amazon Prime.
All told, the legacy rights holders have agreed to pay a grand total of some $89.5 billion in order to keep carrying NFL games, a figure that marks a 108% hike compared to the $43.1 billion the four networks will have shelled out by the time their current packages expire. When Amazon’s streaming contribution is added to the TV bill, the overall cost of carrying NFL games from 2023-2033 works out to around $105 billion.
While that’s a monocle-popping amount of money, the NFL is arguably worth every penny. Not only did the league account for 71 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts in 2020, but it also was responsible for generating nearly $4 billion in ad sales revenue for the host networks. In the TV ad market, you’re either at the top of the heap with all your enemies slain at your feet—which is to say that you air live NFL games—or you’re locked in a gas station toilet filled with bees.
Over the last several broadcast seasons, the gap between the reach of the NFL and TV’s general-entertainment programming has grown only wider; while NBC’s Sunday Night Football this past season averaged 6.34 million adults 18-49, the various scripted and reality shows in network prime are currently delivering fewer than 830,000 members of the dollar demo. In other words, NBC’s pro football showcase serves up more than seven-and-a-half as many advertiser-coveted viewers as does everything else in primetime.
The league is also responsible for a huge chunk of the time viewers spend with its media partners. For example, Fox’s NFL showcase now accounts for a wildly disproportionate share of the network’s overall impressions; per Nielsen, the Sunday games were responsible for more than half (52%) of the absolute time viewers spent with Fox in 2020. For ESPN, the NFL may claim bragging rights to 20% of its overall viewership a year ago, while CBS (13%) and NBC (11%) are somewhat less dependent on the league’s drawing power.
In inimitable fashion, the NFL announced its rights coup just hours before the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament was set to tip off in Indianapolis. It was a none-too-subtle reminder that the league owns the news cycle, no matter the date on the calendar.
Here’s how the new payment schedule breaks down:
Fox has held onto its Sunday afternoon NFC package, signing off on a renewal that will see it pay the NFL some $2.025 billion per year, up 80% from its current $1.13 billion fee. The 2020 campaign marked the 12th consecutive year in which Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” broadcast was the highest-rated program on TV; per Nielsen, the national Sunday afternoon window averaged north of 23 million viewers. When Fox’s regional coverage is tossed into the mix, the network’s overall NFL deliveries last season averaged out to 18.1 million viewers.
In prioritizing its Sunday NFC renewal, Fox punted away the opportunity to renew its Thursday Night Football package, for which it currently pays $660 million per year. The lack of exclusivity and less-than-stellar ratings—while Fox reaches 18.1 million more linear TV homes than does ESPN, Thursday Night Football last season out-delivered Monday Night Football by a mere 500,000 adults 18-49—made this a less-than-wrenching decision for Fox.
With a market cap of $24.7 billion—a drop in the bucket compared to Disney’s lordly $354.4 billion—and saddled as it is with rights fees for a laundry list of properties that include Major League Baseball, Big Ten football and NASCAR, Fox in the next four years will spend upwards of $16 billion on its sports contracts even before the NFL tab is due. Walking away from TNF is just good horse sense.
Fox in 2020 aired the league’s three most-watched regular-season games, and each of its nine national windows landed in the top 20. Fox owns stations in nine of the top 10 largest media markets, which might really pay off again should the NFC East decide to dial back the slapstick any time soon. Together, the wobbly division’s four markets (New York, Philly, Dallas, the District) account for some 16 million TV homes, or 11% of the nation’s overall audience base.
When Fox is up in the Super Bowl rotation, the network’s total-season in-game ad sales haul can reach as high as $1.76 billion, per Standard Media Index estimates.
Under the terms of its new rights deal, Fox will serve up NFL programming via its ad-supported video-on-demand service, Tubi. Fox acquired the platform last spring for $440 million.
Fox’s return engagement serves as further evidence that the relationship between broadcast TV and the NFL is entirely symbiotic. In other words, while the balance of power very well may be completely out of whack by the time this new deal approaches its sell-by date, for the near term, network TV and the National Football League will continue to sustain one other as the margins on ad-supported entertainment programming shrink to Tarik Cohen dimensions.
CBS, which will retain its own Sunday afternoon NFL showcase while continuing to share the national 4:20 p.m. ET window with Fox, has agreed to pay some $1.85 billion per year. That marks an 80% jump from the $1.03 billion it pays the NFL under its current contract. CBS’ deal includes the rights to stream live NFL games, on a regional basis, to subscribers of its Paramount+ service, which costs $9.99 per month and launched earlier this month. (A $4.99 ad-supported tier, which will include fewer perks while still featuring live sports, is due out in June.)
Per terms of the deal, CBS will keep its AFC-leaning schedule, which aligns particularly well with the geographic locations of its various affiliate stations. Three of the NFL’s five top-rated local markets last season are AFC strongholds, with Kansas City beating all comers with an average 46.8 rating. The Bills Mafia pushed Buffalo up to the No. 3 slot (40.5), while Steelers fans secured fourth place for their hometown DMA (40.0). All told, the AFC accounted for six of the NFL’s top 10 local TV markets.
Eight of CBS’s owned-and-operated stations are in AFC markets, including New York (Jets), Los Angeles (Chargers), Boston (Patriots), Miami (Dolphins), Denver (Broncos), Indianapolis (Colts), Pittsburgh (Steelers) and Baltimore (Ravens).
While the national widow manned by Jim Nantz and Tony Romo is the glamour broadcast, CBS’ regional NFL coverage deserves a little hype of its own. All told, the network’s local Sunday afternoon games in 2020 averaged north of 14 million viewers; by comparison, CBS’ highest-rated scripted series, the long-running primetime procedural NCIS, is currently averaging 9.61 million viewers in its Tuesday night time slot.
Since CBS first teamed up with the NFL back in 1956, the network has aired a grand total of 6,133 games, a rundown that includes a record 21 Super Bowl broadcasts. But for the interval between 1994 and 1997, when the upstart Fox made off with CBS’s venerable NFC package and its lead broadcaster, John Madden, the Eye Network and the NFL have been all but synonymous with one another.
NBC will pay $1.71 billion per year to keep Sunday Night Football on its air, an increase of around 80% compared to the $950 million it pays under the terms of its current contract. According to Standard Media Index data, NBC in 2019 booked $850 million worth of in-game NFL inventory, a figure which includes $762 million in regular-season SNF spend and another $88 million in playoff sales. Excluding units set aside for make-goods, a 30-second spot in the primetime showcase fetched north of $800,000 on the scatter market.
Even in a down year, Sunday Night Football dwarfed everything else on the primetime roster in 2020, averaging 17.4 million linear TV and streaming viewers over the course of 18 games. In terms of its deliveries of the all-important adults 18-49 demo, SNF reigns supreme in prime, delivering four times as many members of the under-50 set per broadcast than TV’s highest-rated scripted series, Grey’s Anatomy.
The streaming component of the new NBC deal will allow the network to offer an exclusive feed of what’s being characterized as a “select number” of SNF games via its new Peacock OTT service, which at last count boasted 33 million subscribers.
Back out its investment in the Olympics, and NBC’s projected spend on sports rights in 2024 will add up to some $3.22 billion. NBC’s wide-ranging sports portfolio has been central to growing its advertising and affiliate revenues; per MoffettNathanson estimates, the latter haul is expected to reach some $4.1 billion in the next two years, while NBCU ad sales come in at twice that amount.
With the new contract will come a change of booth personnel, as broadcasting veteran Al Michaels will step down to make way for Mike Tirico. Michaels’ final assignment with NBC is expected to be Super Bowl LVI, which is set to air on Feb. 6, 2022—although the likely addition of a 17th regular-season game will probably push the date back a week. The game will mark Michaels’ 11th career Super Bowl broadcast, putting him in a tie at the top of the all-time list with the late Pat Summerall.
Disney, per terms of its $28.1 billion extension, will pay what amounts to a 30% premium for the Monday Night Football package, which includes the invaluable video and highlights rights that serve as the lifeblood of ESPN’s on-air (and in-app) programming. In addition to the linear TV renewal, the new deal will allow for the streaming of live Monday Night Football games on ESPN+.
Contrary to earlier speculation, ABC has not landed a standalone NFL package of its own; instead, the broadcaster will air three standalone MNF games per season, during weeks in which a new two-game Monday schedule will feature a separate matchup on ESPN. Perhaps more important, the new agreement gives ABC the broadcast rights to the Super Bowl in 2026 and 2030, putting the network on a more even footing with its three broadcast rivals. (CBS, Fox and NBC will each carry three Super Bowls over the lifespan of the new deal.)
The last time ABC aired the Super Bowl was back in 2006, when Pittsburgh claimed its fifth Lombardi Trophy with a 21-10 win over Seattle. A 30-second spot in Super Bowl XL cost $2.5 million, good for a total in-game ad haul of $162.5 million. CBS booked three times that amount with this year’s Bucs-Chiefs showdown, in which the average unit cost was $5.5 million a pop.
The Monday Night Football ride-sharing agreement was effectively telegraphed last season, as ABC was tapped to simulcast three ESPN games. The first, a Sept. 21 Saints-Raiders showdown that also served as a housewarming party for Allegiant Stadium and marked the first-ever NFL game to be played in Las Vegas, averaged a season-high 15.6 million viewers and a 9.2 household rating.
As an added incentive, ESPN/ABC under the new deal will now have the option to flex in a more compelling matchup in the event a scheduled MNF game loses its allure.
The timing on the Disney renewal is somewhat asynchronous with the rest of the league’s TV partners, as a negotiated bridge year will extend its current contract one year through the end of the 2022 season, while the actual renewal runs through 2032.
Amazon is buying itself a place at the sports-media grownups’ table, finalizing a deal that will make the online retailer the exclusive home to the bulk of the Thursday Night Football lineup. (NFL Network, which is contractually obligated by its carriage agreements with operators to televise at least six live games each season, will continue to air a handful of exclusive Thursday games in the first few weeks of fall as well as a few Saturday games in late December, after college football wraps.)
Amazon effectively doubled down down on Fox’s current TNF fee, offering some $1.32 billion per year for the package, which works out to a cool $14.5 billion. The tech giant first kicked the tires on a standalone NFL production on Dec. 26, when it carried a Saturday afternoon 49ers-Cardinals game produced by CBS. With an average minute audience of 4.8 million viewers, the NFC West showdown was the NFL’s second least-watched national TV window behind only a Dec. 19 Bills-Broncos blowout that averaged 4.53 million viewers on NFL Network. (Buffalo’s 48-19 dismantling of Denver aired opposite the ACC Championship Game on ABC, which drew 9.92 million viewers.)
Whether Amazon will outsource its NFL production or build a team from the ground up remains to be seen, but any new hires from the TV world it makes over the next several months will be closely scrutinized.
Amazon’s stewardship of TNF starts in 2022.
Jeff Bezos’ firm has been building toward this moment since 2017, when it unseated Twitter as the NFL’s official Thursday night streaming partner. Amazon’s initial $50 million investment marked a 400% increase versus its predecessor’s buy-in. The following season saw Amazon re-up with the NFL in a two-year, $130 million deal, which in turn led to April’s three-year extension that included a provision for the exclusive 49ers-Cards stream.
The new rights deals cap a remarkable year-long stretch during which the NFL hashed out a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union; signed on three new corporate partners in Postmates, Subway and Hyperice; conducted a draft via commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement; and, in the midst of a global pandemic, successfully staged an entire season without having to cancel one of its 256 scheduled games. And all this while generating some $12 billion in revenue, despite being able to accommodate only 6% of its usual on-site customers.
(This story has updated the headline to $100 Billion)