In the same way that it’s ill-advised for small children to play tackle football against a professional athlete the size of a sub-zero refrigerator, it is equally harebrained for deep-pocketed marketers to pass on the opportunity to advertise in this fall’s NFL broadcasts. If football’s hegemonic stranglehold over the TV marketplace were ever in doubt—last season, the late national window shared by CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoons averaged a staggering 24.3 million viewers and a 13.4 household rating, which marked an 8% and 6% improvement, respectively, compared to the 2018 deliveries—the numbers promise to be even higher this season.
With a watered-down college football slate and very little in the way of new primetime entertainment programming in the hopper, the NFL quite literally may prove to be the only game in town for TV advertisers.
What follows is a roster of the five most indispensable matchups of the fall season. If you’re trying to clear trucks off the lot or improve your market share in the carbonated sugar-water category, these games are all but guaranteed to give you the most bang for your buck. And no, we’re not going help get your money back if we inadvertently steer you to an underperforming broadcast—that’s why God invented makegoods.
Before we jump into our top five, a quick word about general NFL ratings trends: Last season marked the second in which the league’s broadcast partners enjoyed a 5% lift in their in-game deliveries. NBC owned primetime with its 14th season of Sunday Night Football, averaging 20 million viewers and an 11.3 rating. NFL games accounted for 41 of the year’s 50 most-watched broadcasts, and 73 of the top 100.
“Broadcast” is the key word here; as demonstrated below, the season’s most promising games are limited to CBS, NBC and Fox productions; ESPN’s omission is a function of the fact that more than 30 million U.S. TV homes don’t subscribe to the cable network’s linear feed. That distribution gap is evident in the overall ratings picture; per Nielsen, last year’s most-watched “Monday Night Football” game, a Nov. 4 Cowboys-Giants grudge match, averaged 14 million viewers and an 8.3 rating, making it the 43rd-biggest draw of the NFL season.
Projected deliveries are based on each team’s 2019 ratings profile and the five-year ratings track for each of the 72 national TV windows. Among the highest-rated teams that were featured in at least four national broadcasts last year: Dallas, New England, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, Chicago and the Los Angeles Rams. Aside from the Pats, note that this list is exclusive to NFC franchises.
Top 5 Projected NFL Broadcasts, 2020
1) Washington at Dallas (Fox Thanksgiving Day window, Nov. 26) 31.6M viewers, 13.2 HH rating.
The Dallas Cowboys and Thanksgiving football go together like Tryptophan and conking out on the couch. Jerry Jones’ charges always draw a massive crowd on Turkey Day, and this year’s matchup with the moniker-free Beltway squad should be no exception … if there’s actually, like, Thanksgiving. For the privilege of getting in front of the carb-besotted crowd on the day before Black Friday, prepare to dig deep; per Standard Media Index data, when Fox last hosted the Cowboys’ T-Day window in 2018, the average unit cost for a 30-second in-game spot was $986,391. Those rates made for a holiday windfall, adding up to $80.1 million in ad sales revenue. (Note: The discrepancy between this broadcast’s high audience projection and its relatively moderate household rating is a function of our secular holiday and its tendency to concentrate more Americans in fewer homes. In other words, everyone’s at Gramma’s house.)
2) Kansas City at Tampa Bay (CBS late national window, Nov. 29) 28.9M, 16.2 HH
This late-season showcase features a battle between the wily old GOAT and the $500 million Super Bowl MVP. CBS was eager to secure what may very well be the last meeting between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes; last season’s Chiefs-Pats thriller was the NFL’s third highest-rated regular-season broadcast. Now that Brady’s taken his talents to South Florida, the Bucs are one of the league’s hottest tickets, having been slated for eight national TV windows, up from just three the year before. Automotive, telco and insurance brands will want to load up on this clash of generations, which coincides with the start of the holiday shopping season.
3) Tampa Bay at New Orleans (Fox late national window, Sept. 13) 27.9M, 16.0 HH
The Saints for two years running have been bounced from the playoffs in grimly improbable fashion by the Vikings, and if the two teams were scheduled to clash again on any day but Christmas, this Fox broadcast would be among the season’s five biggest draws. While Drew Brees may wind up crying in his étouffée all over again on Dec. 25, this early showdown with fellow oldster Brady is going to be one of those games that will scare up everyone from the casual fan to Massachusetts’ most phoneme-torturing, consonant-swallowing diehards, a broken-hearted caste who’ll tune in just to see if Touchdown Tahwmmy can make a go of it with his new pirate-themed outfit. Oddly enough, the last time Brees and Brady met up (2017), the game didn’t air in a national window. That said, back in 2013, Fox’s Saints-Pats broadcast averaged a sturdy 26.7 million viewers and a 15.8 rating. (Definitely helping out on the ratings front was Brady’s toss of the game-winning touchdown pass with just five ticks left on the clock.)
4) Pittsburgh at Dallas (CBS late national window, Nov. 8) 27.3M, 15.7 HH
This was CBS’s top choice when it handed the NFL brass its 2020 wish list, and as it happens, the Steelers-Cowboys broadcast is also fetching the network’s highest in-game ad rates. While many fans weren’t around to bear witness to the great rivalry of the Bradshaw vs. Staubach era, the mystique of this particular pairing hasn’t dulled with the passage of time. Four years ago, Fox averaged 28.9 million viewers and a 16.4 rating with its Pittsburgh-Dallas showcase; whether this game puts up similar numbers is largely dependent upon the health of Ben Roethlisberger.
While typically reliable for around eight national TV appearances per season, demand for the Steelers’ brand of smashmouth football began to flicker out last season, as mediocre backups Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges proved to be ratings kryptonite. If Roethlisberger is under center, however, and Dallas has limited opportunities to crack Rudolph in the dome with his own helmet, this Old School duel should bring in some $70 million in ad revenue for CBS.
5) San Francisco at Dallas (NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Dec. 20) 26.4M, 14.5 HH
While the whole “America’s Team” shtick is wholly unsupportable to anyone who isn’t a Dallas marketing executive or Yosemite Sam, the Cowboys have earned their broadcast ubiquity. Slated to take part in an NFL-high 11 national TV outings, Dallas once again will be as inescapable as death. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, the team always makes for must-see TV; per Nielsen, the Cowboys last season averaged 23.4 million viewers and a 12.9 rating. With this Week 15 scrap between Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo, NBC will fetch as much as $750,000 per in-game unit—perhaps more if both teams are in playoff-caliber form at that point in the season. (Garoppolo, whose performance in Super Bowl LIV was at times reminiscent of Hannah, rather than Joe Montana, is the wild card here.)