Russell Wilson’s move from Seattle to Denver is just one of a dozen seismic personnel shifts that have rocked the NFL in recent weeks, and while Broncos fans are justifiably psyched about their new QB, the big winner of this year’s bonkers free agency bazaar may well be CBS.
Overnight, the Wilson trade not only improved Denver’s odds of winning the Lombardi Trophy from +2500 to +1200—for its part, Seattle slumped from +3500 to +10000, tying Jacksonville for the fourth-longest odds—but it also sparked a frenzy of countermoves in the AFC West.
Among the division’s most galvanizing shifts include the Packers’ trade of Davante Adams to the Raiders, which reunites the NFL’s top wideout with his Fresno State QB, Derek Carr, and the Chiefs’ trade of the lightning-fast Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins, a development that robs Patrick Mahomes of his favorite target. (While new acquisition JuJu Smith-Schuster is a downgrade, Kansas City has plenty of bonus draft choices to work with that might help spring Travis Kelce from endless double-coverage.) The Chargers, meanwhile, elected to focus on the other side of the ball, bolstering its defensive unit with a trade for linebacker Khalil Mack.
Since free agency officially kicked off on March 16, the AFC has all but strip-mined the NFC for talent. In exchange for a third-round pick, the Colts relieved the Falcons of Matt Ryan, who will serve as Indy’s fifth starting QB in as many seasons. (In a rare reversal of conference polarity, Atlanta raided the Titans’ bench for two-year backup Marcus Mariota.) The Browns snatched up Amari Cooper’s $20 million contract from Dallas, the Rams shipped Robert Woods to the Titans, and the Steelers inched back from the brink of the Mason Rudolph abyss by signing Chicago’s Mitch Trubisky.
While none of those recent deals are likely to have an outsized impact of the AFC West’s parity-making moves, the transference of talent from one conference to the other functions as a nifty metaphor for the NFL’s impending audience shift. With Wilson under center, Denver is about to earn itself Manning-era TV exposure; after having appeared in just two national broadcast windows in 2021, the Broncos are again a hot property. Wilson’s scheduled return to Seattle this fall is on every network’s wish list, and the prospect of the future Hall of Famer squaring off against Mahomes and L.A.’s Justin Herbert should sell a lot of soda pop and auto insurance.
For all the buzz Wilson brings, he won’t play a part in the most coveted game of the year. At some point during the 2022 season, Mahomes’ squad will host Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills, which means that CBS, Fox and NBC are all looking to make a case as to why they should get dibs on the sequel to what was arguably the greatest NFL game in recent memory. Kansas City’s 42-36 overtime win in the Divisional Round peaked at 60.1 million viewers, and while there’s obviously no guarantee a regular-season showdown will generate the same excitement as a once-in-a-generation playoff, the two QBs are emblematic of the beyond-stacked AFC.
The cross-flex rule provides CBS the latitude to go after other intriguing interconference games, including an upcoming Packers-Bills shootout, a Chiefs-Bucs throwdown, and a Bengals-Cowboys pairing that will mark Joe Burrow’s first trip to Texas since he led the LSU Tigers to a 45-38 win over the Longhorns in 2019. Also up for grabs is a Bills-Rams air war. After appearing in just three national broadcast windows last season, Buffalo is certain to see its TV dance card fill up when the league starts putting the finishing touches on the 2022 schedule.
As the AFC looks to steal the spotlight, CBS has a shot at not only overtaking Fox in the Sunday afternoon ratings race, but can also look to boost its in-game ad rates. There’s not much Nielsen daylight separating the Fox and CBS national NFL windows, but the former has a 13-year winning streak on the line, care of its “America’s Game of the Week” package. Fox’s coast-to-coast window last season averaged 23.1 million viewers, edging perennial silver medalist CBS by a margin of around 750,000 impressions.
With a foothold in eight of the nation’s 10 largest media markets, Fox and its NFC showcase have a not-insignificant demographic edge over its network rivals, although cross-flex has gone a long way toward helping CBS narrow the gap. And as much as the home-market advantage allows Fox to charge advertisers more for its NFL commercial inventory—per Standard Media Index estimates, the average unit cost in Fox’s Sunday broadcasts was around $676,000, well above CBS’ $495,000 rate—the explosion of talent in the AFC presents the Eye Network with a golden opportunity to bring its fees more in line with its overall deliveries.
The networks tend to look after their biggest spenders. Rather than putting the squeeze on ubiquitous brands such as Geico, Progressive, Verizon, State Farm and AT&T, the networks tend to secure the biggest year-to-year rate hikes from relative newcomers. Sportsbooks like Caesars and BetMGM got in on last season’s action at the high end of the pricing continuum, and the emerging cryptocurrency exchanges are in line to be hit up for a rate hike in their second season of NFL investment.
Of course, Fox will want some of its own AFC-NFC hybrids to sprinkle through a schedule that should already lean heavily on top-rated franchises like Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa and the L.A. Rams. Last season, Fox scored its highest Sunday rating with its Nov. 21 Cowboys-Chiefs broadcast, which aired in 93% of all markets and drew 28.7 million viewers. Two weeks earlier, Fox drew 25 million viewers with a Packers-Chiefs skirmish that would have rung up even bigger numbers if Aaron Rodgers hadn’t been sidelined by a COVID diagnosis.
Fox will have an all-new No. 1 booth, with Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen the two internal candidates most likely to replace the departed Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. In terms of ratings and pricing considerations, the broadcast shuffle is expected to have very little, if any, impact on fall Sundays. “The next time a client wants to pull out of an NFL buy because of the broadcast crew will be the first time,” said one national TV buyer. “[John] Madden may have been the only guy who helped grow the game just by talking about it every week, but the year after he retired, the NFL ratings were up 9%.”