Here's How Much Ad Time in NFL Games Costs Marketers This Season

NFL Broadcasters Bag Big Bucks

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Credit: Richard Sheinwald/Bloomberg News.

The National Football League remains the hottest ticket in town for TV advertisers, as inventory in the sport's coast-to-coast broadcast packages is once again out-pricing just about everything else on the tube.

According to media buyers who regularly steer clients to NFL broadcasts, the priciest slice of prime-time real estate is once again a 30-second spot in NBC's "Sunday Night Football." Marketers looking to hitch their wagon to NBC's weekly juggernaut are paying on the order of $665,375 per unit, with late scatter buys from the likes of movie studios and telco brands pacing well over the $700,000 mark.

Last year, the average cost for a 30-second commercial in "Sunday Night Football" was a little over $625,000.

While the sums commanded by NBC at first blush may seem extravagant -- for what it's worth, the cost per :30 is almost exactly 13 times the U.S. median household income -- it's not as if advertisers are throwing their money down a rat hole. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, "Sunday Night Football" in 2014 was the most-watched, top-rated program in prime time, averaging 21.3 million viewers and a 12.4 household rating.

By way of comparison, America's No. 2 TV sports league, the National Basketball Association, averaged a 2.2 household rating over the course of its 15 regular-season broadcasts last season on ABC. NBC's in-season NFL package also outstripped a host of series with championship implications, including the seven-game 2014 World Series (8.3 HH rating), last June's NBA Finals (11.6) and Team USA's victorious title tilt in the 2015 Women's World Cup Final (11.4).

Take away the "prime time" qualifier and "Sunday Night Football" isn't even the biggest program on TV. That honor last season went to Fox and its Sunday slate of eight late-afternoon national NFC broadcasts, which averaged 26.6 million viewers and a 15.5 HH rating. And hard on Fox's heels was CBS, whose AFC-heavy late-afternoon Sunday package averaged 25.5 million viewers and a 14.8 HH rating.

Fox's NFC deal gives it a leg up in 8 of the NFL's top 10 urban markets, places like New York and Chicago, Philadelphia and Dallas, where football is less a pastime than a secular religious cult that encourages tailgating. But CBS's hybrid AFC-NFC showcase is itself no slouch, as the Tiffany network this year will air two Cowboys games and another pair of Seahawks contests, giving it a chance to showcase the league's most-watched and highest-rated teams, respectively.

Given the ratings delivered by the 4:20 p.m. national games, it should come as no surprise that Fox and CBS price those broadcasts accordingly. Sources say that Fox will once again command the highest ad rate on TV for a regularly-scheduled program, securing around $689,225 for 30 seconds of time in its "America's Game of the Week," with scatter buys rising well above that mark. CBS, for its part, is asking around $637,415 per unit.

Meanwhile, commercials in ESPN's "Monday Night Football" showcase are selling for around $427,685 a pop, while CBS's eight-game "Thursday Night Football" lineup -- the autumn octet once again will be simulcast on NFL Network -- is pricing at around $547,151 per :30. Automotive remains a big backer of both weeknight broadcasts, as Toyota has returned as the "MNF" halftime sponsor while Lexus is back to support the 12-minute "TNF" intermission.

Flying above the headwinds
While the upfront market slumped for a third straight year, the NFL didn't seem to face the same headwinds that buffeted the general-entertainment TV landscape. Whereas overall upfront ad rates inched up an estimated 4% versus the 2014-15 bazaar, the boost for NFL inventory is believed to have been in the plus-5%-to-plus-8% range. And with demand showing no sign of abating (more than 90% of all broadcast prime-time units are now accounted for), the constriction of available ad time can only push scatter rates even higher.

Only a handful of general-entertainment programs boast NFL-gauge muscle in the marketplace. Fox's "Empire" is commanding an average unit cost of around $500,000 per :30, while AMC's "The Walking Dead" is not all that far behind.

While high-end sporting events like the Olympics, the World Series and the NBA Finals continue to earn the highest ad rates outside of football, the biggest entertainment franchise remains ABC's broadcast of the annual Academy Awards ceremony. Early 30-second commitments for the Feb. 28 Oscars show are fetching around $2 million a pop.

For all that, nothing comes near to demonstrating the power of sport and spectacle quite like the 800-lb gorilla that is the Super Bowl. CBS is moving $5 million 30-second units, which makes for the broadcast's fifth straight record asking rate. Way back in 1967, when the NFL's Green Bay Packers squared off against the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs in the very first Super Bowl, a half-minute unit went for a song -- $37,500 on NBC and $42,500 on CBS. (Yep. Two networks.) Fifty years later, the going rate for a Super Bowl spot is 125 times greater than that initial outlay.