Cost of NFL in-game ads jumps 15 percent as ratings hit a three-year high: Sports Media Brief
Welcome to the another edition of Ad Age Sports Media Brief, a weekly roundup of news from every zone of the sports media spray chart, including the latest on broadcast/cable/streaming, sponsorships, endorsements, gambling and tech.
You get what you pay for
Two years ago at about this time, a host of self-proclaimed experts (and a whole lot of people who probably should have known better) were falling all over themselves in their haste to toss a spadeful of dirt onto the lid of the NFL’s casket. TV ratings were plummeting, the president was racking up cheap style points from his base with his anti-NFL tweets and blowhards of all stripes stormed the Nielsen burial plot with shovels aloft.
If the events of the 2018 season snatched the spades from the mitts of more than a few uninformed ghouls, this year’s campaign effectively sent them howling from the boneyard. With two weeks to go before the playoffs begin, the NFL’s national and regional TV windows are averaging 16.7 million viewers and a 9.6 household rating, up 6 percent versus the analogous period a year ago and a lift of 11 percent compared to the same span in 2017.
The swing of the pendulum coincides with an ongoing collapse in primetime entertainment deliveries that has left the networks knee-deep in make-good obligations. Through the first 12 weeks of the 2019-20 broadcast season, only 11 scripted series are averaging a 1.0 or better in the adults 18-49 demo; a year ago at this time there were 31. The fall’s top-rated newcomer is currently eking out a 0.8 in the dollar demo, which adds up to a whole lot of nothing when compared to the 6.1 rating served up by “Sunday Night Football.” (In other words, the biggest freshman series is attracting a little north of 1 million adults 18-49 per episode, whereas NBC’s NFL showcase is averaging 7.9 million advertiser-coveted viewers.)
If the networks aren’t getting much help from their general-entertainment lineups, the NFL’s return to glory has taken some of the sting out of the fall ADU cycle. In what amounts to an all-or-nothing marketplace, NFL rights holders can name their own price. Unburdened by make-goods, NBC, CBS and Fox are nicely positioned to make the most of the current boom, as is evident in the significant pricing increases they’ve negotiated for inventory in their respective NFL broadcast packages.
According to Standard Media Index data, in-game unit costs in October NFL broadcasts jumped 15 percent compared to the year-ago period, with advertisers forking over an average rate of $419,045 for 30 seconds of airtime. That’s up from $363,016 in October 2018. Fox has wrangled the highest rate increases, upping the cost of a half-minute spot in its Sunday afternoon NFL broadcasts 20 percent to $462,213 a pop. SMI’s Fox estimates blend the network’s regional coverage and its national showcase, which kicks off at 4:20 p.m. ET.
Fox aired two “America’s Game of the Week” broadcasts in October, and while SMI does not break out the pricing for the national windows, media buyers estimated that the typical 30-second spot in the Oct. 6 Packers-Cowboys game fetched north of $650,000. One late scatter buy made just a few days before the kickoff is said to have cost nearly $875,000.
Fox’s rate hike is predictable enough, given how it’s been faring since the NFL’s 100th season began back in September. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the network’s Sunday broadcasts collectively are averaging 19.3 million viewers, up 7 percent versus the year-ago period, while the national window is up 11 percent to 24.6 million. This marks Fox’s best NFL showing since 2016.
But Fox isn’t the only NFL media partner that’s been making a killing on Sundays. NBC’s average unit cost for its in-game “Sunday Night Football” inventory is up 12 percent to $566,469, while CBS’s NFL rates have jumped 11 percent to $368,896. As is the case with Fox, SMI does not carve out the pricing for CBS’s own national TV window, but buyers confirmed that the network’s 4:20 p.m. rates climbed steadily throughout the season.
A scatter unit in CBS’s Dec. 8 Chiefs-Patriots broadcast is said to have commanded nearly $900,000, and despite the nosebleed rate, the client spent wisely. The rematch of the AFC Championship Game scared up 28.1 million viewers and a 16.1 HH rating, making it CBS’s highest-rated regular-season broadcast since 2015.
While its cable-distribution scheme doesn’t allow it the reach of the broadcast networks, ESPN in October also boosted its NFL rates. Per SMI, the cost of a 30-second in-game unit in “Monday Night Football” worked out to $261,926 a pop, up 4 percent compared to the analogous period in 2018.
The only NFL partner to endure a decrease in its in-game ad rates was NFL Network. In October, the in-house cable outlet aired a lone Sunday-morning London skirmish—the Panthers-Bucs game averaged just 3.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating—which saw its average unit cost slide 10 percent to $95,857 per :30. By comparison, NFL Net a year ago put together a far more intriguing U.K. matchup with its Eagles-Jags pairing, a meeting between the defending Super Bowl champs and a Jacksonville team that had missed out on a trip to the Big Game by a margin of four measly points.
SMI aggregates its data directly from the billing systems of a group of media agencies that accounts for as much as 95 percent of all U.S. ad spending.
Bob’s your uncle
That the NFL’s ratings are soaring just as the league is beginning to lay the groundwork for its next round of media rights contracts is lost on absolutely no one in the TV business. Even if a Google or Amazon should drive a couple of overstuffed Brinks trucks to the league’s Park Ave. headquarters, the reach of traditional TV should help the legacy broadcasters hold their ground against any incursion from one or more of the deep-pocketed digital upstarts.
Speaking last week at the UBS Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish told investors that he was encouraged by his recent meetings with NFL personnel and franchise owners. “CBS has a long-standing, highly productive partnership with the NFL,” Bakish said, adding that the network’s production expertise should give it a leg up over the untutored FAANG set. “[The NFL] has a great deal of faith in CBS in terms of its ability to deliver a super-high-quality product. … This is a complicated production—you know, live sports, multiple cameras, all that—and CBS is the best in the business. And [that’s] not easy to replicate.”
Bakish said that he believes the merger of the cable and broadcast units will only improve CBS’s chances at re-upping with the NFL before the current contract expires at the end of the 2022 season. Without going into details about how synergies between the Viacom nets and CBS might play out—as Janet Jackson can attest, some cross-cultural corporate mashups aren’t all they’re cracked up to be—Bakish suggested that MTV, Nickelodeon and the like could help bring younger viewers into the fold.
According to Nielsen estimates, adults 18-34 currently make up 16 percent of the primetime NFL audience, while viewers from 2 to 17 years of age account for 7 percent of the TV turnout.
Bakish concluded his NFL spiel by saying that CBS is bullish about how it will fare in what promises to be a highly competitive auction. “I feel very good about our position, if you will, going into it,” he said, before predicting that a deal “probably gets done way sooner than 2023.” Well, yes. Once the NFL has hashed out a new collective-bargaining agreement with the players’ union, a development that is expected to happen shortly after the confetti snow angels are swept up following Super Bowl LIV, there’s little reason to suspect that the rights negotiations won’t follow suit.
That said, Bakish’s summation of Where Things Stand was marred by a rather glaring oversight, as the ViacomCBS boss failed to vocalize the four syllables that serve as the best argument for a CBS renewal: 1) Sean. 2) Mc. 3) Man. 4) Us.
“So I got that going for me, which is nice”
Speaking of sports media rights, there’s big doings on the duffer front. According to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand, CBS and NBC have “agreed on the broad terms of new deals that will see the PGA Tour reap a sizable rights fee increase of around 60 percent,” which would boost the tour’s TV haul from around $400 million per year to some $700 million. The Tour also has agreed to terms with the NBCUniversal-owned Golf Channel, which means that WarnerMedia won’t be rebranding truTV a 24-hour golf outlet.
From Russia with Dope
When they’re not trying to subvert our democracy or hacking the servers at NATO-member embassies, the Russians like drinking debilitating volumes of vodka, banging on about Pushkin and cheating. Given the россияне propensity for bending the rules, it came as little surprise last week when the World Anti-Doping Agency announced it had issued a comprehensive ban that will prevent Russia from participating in any global sporting events for the next four years. In the near term, the WADA ruling will push Russian athletes out of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the 2022 FIFA World Cup Finals in Qatar.
Upon hearing the news, Horizon Media decided to try and draw a bead on how stateside sports fans viewed the ban and if the absence of Russian athletes would in any way impact their Olympics consumption. According to Horizon’s latest “Finger on the Pulse” poll, Ivan’s ouster is unlikely to materially affect NBC’s ratings, as 86 percent of respondents said “their viewership would stay the same for the 2020 Olympics.” (Russia’s absence from the next men’s World Cup elicited a similarly-pitched shrug, with 87 percent of people surveyed saying that it wouldn’t impact their viewing.)
As the Horizon research team concluded, “advertisers associated with these events need not worry that fewer eyeballs will be on them.” Given that the Olympic rivalry between the U.S. and C.C.C.P. ended in 1991 when something Glasnost something Gorby, it’s not surprising that Russia’s disappearing act isn’t putting a whole bunch of sports nuts into sleep debt. In terms of medal count, Great Britain—or whatever we’ll be calling it now that the barbarians have won the day—and China are the Americans’ toughest adversaries, and even in those cases, it’s unlikely that any sort of perceived antagonism is a primary driver of Olympics ratings.
Worth noting: Horizon researchers did not reach out to Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky, a.k.a Krusty the Clown, an entertainer and entrepreneur who very likely has some strong opinions about Russia-free Olympics.
Like drawing a handlebar mustache on the Mona Lisa
Yankees fans are hopping mad about Major League Baseball’s new sponsorship deal with Nike, as pinstripe loyalists charge that the addition of the Swoosh to the front of the canonical jerseys is an affront to God and Lou Gehrig and our fiery drunken king, Billy Martin. Leave such shameless bill-boarding to the likes of the tawdry D’backs and Rays, is the thinking, a sentiment fortified by the fact that the Bronx Bombers have long been able to fight off the encroachment of dopey uni overhauls and the sort of rude third-party branding that have left less-storied teams playing their games at the Pants.org Pavilion or Mrs. Butterworth’s Field or wherever in front of an audience of 400 sleepy drifters.
But for a few minor style tweaks, the Yankees unis have gone unchanged since Babe Ruth came over from the Red Sox. No shorts-and-nightmarishly-elongated-collars for the most successful professional sports team in the United States! No late-'90s sleeveless abominations or McDonaldLand Dumpster Dive get-ups for the 27-time world champs!
All goes onward and outward, and everything collapses. This is a miscarriage of taste and decency and a bone in the throat for all reasonable people. George Steinbrenner is spinning in his grave like a rotisserie chicken.
You’re all that’s left to hold onto
The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch gives subscribers a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into CBS’s national NFL broadcasts. The story starts off with a fantastic teaser (“Everyone should get to hear Jim Nantz tell a Dunkin’ attendant, ‘We’ll have a 25-count Munchkin’ at least once in life.”) and never slows down from there. No surprise that Deitsch zeroes in on the donuts thing; as any student of the stealthily weird Jim Nantz will tell you, there is nothing more delightful than the man’s obsession with the proper preparation of junk food.
Bonus fun: In order to get their vocal cords limber, Nantz and Tony Romo before the opening kickoff will sing U2’s “Red Hill Mining Town,” a ballad about the goons at the British National Coal Board that somehow sounds like the sort of swoony love song you hear while fumbling with the corsage on Prom Night.
Add Shaq to the list of Stevie-Wonder-Can-See Truthers.