America’s media giants in March hitched their wagons to the NFL for another decade. Next month, they’ll find out whether that $105 billion was money well spent.
The new NFL season, which begins Sept. 9, will provide a crucial stress test of the popularity of TV’s biggest attraction. Last year, NFL regular season viewership fell 7%, marking the first drop in three years. But it was hard to tell if fewer people watched because of declining interest in the sport or due to COVID-related disruptions including an unusually crowded sports calendar, games played without fans and players sidelined by the coronavirus.
Now, CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and Amazon.com Inc. will get a clearer picture of what they will be paying for through 2033: an entertainment property largely immune to the pressures facing the rest of TV or one that’s also starting to slip.
“The first four weeks of the season will be very telling,” said Patrick Crakes, a consultant and former Fox Sports executive. “If the NFL ratings are flat and everything else on TV is down 20% that will justify the investments they made.”
Hans Schroeder, executive VP of NFL Media, said it wasn’t unusual for NFL ratings to dip during an election year, like 2020. He expects viewership to be strong this season, citing higher preseason ratings, intriguing matchups between high-profile teams and the return of fans to stadiums.
“We just think there’s a lot of excitement around football,” Schroeder said. “All the indicators we look at — with the engagement of our fans and how things are pacing this August — are really strong.”