How Advertisers May Buy the NFL, Even if Season Is Lost

Set-top Data Means You Can Buy an Football-Like Audience on Other Shows, Dayparts and Networks

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Dave Morgan
Dave Morgan
Last week was a tough one for NFL fans. The breakdown in the negotiations between team owners and the players -- and all of the attendant issues around decertification, lockout and litigation -- creates a pessimistic outlook for a normal NFL season this fall. Of course, it's not just the fans that will lose. Losing the NFL will put a number of TV networks and advertisers on the hot seat.

NFL games drive tens of millions of weekly viewers to game broadcasts and related coverage on CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN and their local affiliates. Dozens of consumer marketers, with names like Budweiser, AT&T, Ford, Geico, McDonald's and Southwest Airlines, build billions of dollars in national media plans around NFL games and their massive reach. To make matters worse, the networks themselves depend on NFL games to promote their weekday prime-time programming, upcoming specials and season premieres. In fact, program promotion is big factor in the networks' willingness to pay premiums in their NFL broadcast deals. No NFL means a tough fall and winter for teams, fans, marketers and broadcasters.

Here are some of my thoughts on how this might shake out:

Won't be easy. Finding cost-effective replacements for those millions of viewers NFL games provide and the $3 billion-plus in attendant ad spending will not be easy. No matter how hard the TV networks work to create replacement programming, whether it is movies, secondary sports, minor league football or Sunday afternoon reality shows, it won't be the NFL and it won't deliver the enormous crossover audiences that the NFL has. If fragmentation of TV audiences was bad before, it will get a lot worse with no NFL.

Web alone won't solve it. A lot of folks believe that the loss of NFL programming could be a tipping point for the web and social media. I am not one of those folks. As amazing as the web is in terms of reach and impact, it is still a distant and weak cousin to TV. Facebook, which currently dominates the web and serves 25% of its page and ad views, is only one-fifth the size of CBS in terms of total audience minutes and would be comparable to PBS if it was rated as a TV network.

Prime time will get more prime. In a fragmenting world, the haves will continue to gain and the have nots will continue to lose. No NFL will only accelerate the process. If you are a big consumer brand that needs to create mass awareness across a national audience, need to "cume" it quickly and want to buy it cost-effectively, nothing works better than prime-time TV. If there is no NFL, all of prime time will get more expensive.

Data will drive aggregation of non-prime audiences. If you can't buy the NFL, can you buy an NFL-like audience on other shows, dayparts and networks? That is already being asked by a number of NFL advertisers and their agencies, and a problem we're trying to solve at Simulmedia. In the panel-driven audience measurement world, where you could only tell audience flows at a very high level, making hundred-million-dollar media shifts on that basis alone was difficult. No more.

Now, we have a number of set-top-box data-powered TV audience analytics companies in the market, from WPP's Kantar to TRA Global to Rentrak. All of them have the ability to find and project the future viewing patter of forlorn NFL viewers at a very granular level. This opens up enormous opportunities to aggregate those viewers across dozens of smaller shows and networks, and on non-prime day-parts. It's not the same as buying NFL games, but it's better than losing the audiences entirely.

What do you think? Are NFL audiences replaceable? Could the loss of the NFL give rise to new ways to buy and aggregate audiences?

Dave Morgan is CEO and founder of New York-based Simulmedia, a TV ad targeting company. Simulmedia uses data-driven technology to help improve the relevance and results of TV advertising. Follow him on Twitter at
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