Saturday night's debut of the Alliance of American Football helped nearly 3 million sports junkies avoid the comedown of gridiron withdrawal. And while the inaugural broadcast largely delivered what the league's backers promised, tracking the new venture's ratings progress may present something of a challenge in the weeks ahead.
Launching on the heels of Super Bowl LIII, the AAF's opening night averaged 2.91 million viewers and a 2.1 overnight rating on CBS. In the 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. EST window, the AAF premiere out-delivered ABC's Oklahoma City-Houston NBA game (which also posted a 2.1 in the metered markets) by some 389,000 viewers.
If America's first look at the AAF was somewhat fractured—the majority of viewers (78 percent of all markets) were presented with the San Diego-San Antonio game, while the remainder had the option to tune in to Orlando's blowout of Atlanta—the broadcast itself was as advertised. The 35-second play clock kept things hopping like a bunny on Adderall, and the breaks in the action were few and far between. In other words, there weren't very many in-game opportunities for advertisers to shill their products.
By AdAge's count, only 14 national ads aired during Saturday night's broadcast—by way of contrast, the average NFL game carries a paid spot load of approximately 85 units—and nearly all of those commercials were featured in split-screen executions. That is, rather than cutting away from the action, CBS kept a camera trained on the field while the paid spot ran in the adjacent box. After 30 seconds elapsed, full-screen game coverage resumed.
Buyers estimate that each 30-second unit in the CBS broadcast fetched around $75,000. The standalone spots were reinforced by call-outs from the broadcast booth and on-screen bugs.
Discounting local breaks and in-house promotions for CBS and the AAF's gaming app, full-screen paid ads appeared in only one pod. Shortly after the halftime show began, CBS cut to a 60-second break featuring a standard MGM Resorts spot, followed by an Air National Guard ad. An investor in and exclusive in-game gambling sponsor of the AAF, MGM Resorts aired three spots in Saturday's game. The other advertisers were the Navy Federal Credit Union, Buffalo Wild Wings and the private aviation service Wheels Up, which thrice aired an ad starring NFL heavyweights Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and J.J. Watt. Wheels Up is also the sponsor of the AAF's Skycam coverage.
All told, six national split-screen spots aired in each half. The same five advertisers that bought time in Saturday's broadcast appeared in nearly identical configurations in the two Sunday games.
The relative scarcity of ad breaks kept the San Diego-San Antonio game humming along, with the length of the broadcast clocking in at a brisk two hours and 33 minutes. By comparison, the outcome of the average NFL game is settled after a more sluggish three hours and seven minutes.
Unfortunately, the AAF offenses haven't quite come to terms with the AAF's need for speed. Because the clock starts as soon as the preceding play is blown dead, the quarterbacks this weekend often found themselves with mere seconds to call the plays, assess the coverage and make any necessary adjustments at the line. Despite rules that limit the pass rush to five players, defenses made short work of the other side of the line, hitting the quarterbacks 44 times and hauling in 12 interceptions over the course of the four games.
For all the early sloppiness on display, the AAF did manage to register its first meme-worthy moment just a few minutes into Saturday night's game. You'd be forgiven for fearing that San Diego quarterback Mike Bercovici's head was still inside his helmet after it was dislodged and sent into orbit, such was the force of Shaan Washington's vicious blindside hit. Viewers with sufficiently high-resolution TV sets saw what appeared to be Bercovici's soul leaving his body after he crumpled to the turf; remarkably, not only did the quarterback stay in the game, but the collision was deemed perfectly legal.
If the early AAF numbers made for an encouraging start on a sleepy Saturday in February, the preliminary Nielsen estimates won't exactly make anyone forget about the NFL. The first AAF broadcast didn't quite match CBS's lowest rating for a 2018 NFL preseason game; on Aug. 24, the network's coverage of a Lions-Bucs scrimmage managed to scare up 3.23 million live-same-day viewers.
Nor did the AAF make much of a dent in the numbers the much-ballyhooed XFL served up in its 2001 premiere on NBC. In that far-less-atomized media universe, Vince McMahon's noisy spectacle delivered a staggering 15.7 million viewers and a 9.5 household rating. (The XFL's ratings would plummet 52 percent in the league's second week and another 33 percent in Week 3, whereupon NBC found itself falling short of its guarantees to advertisers.)
How the AAF fares over the course of its 10-week season is anyone's guess, but subsequent ratings analysis won't provide much, if any, insight into how the league is faring. For starters, deliveries for the Sunday afternoon games on CBS Sports Network will be unavailable, as the cable channel does not subscribe to Nielsen's ratings service. Turner's B/R Live is a streaming service and not a TV outlet, so its nine Saturday afternoon games are statistically immaterial, which leaves 18 telecasts on NFL Network and a standalone Feb. 16 presentation on TNT.
With an estimated subscriber count of 67.4 million households, NFL Network reaches just 56 percent of all U.S. TV homes. As such, the AAF's future deliveries won't come anywhere near the league's opening numbers. In-game ad inventory is priced accordingly. (Case in point: Sunday night's Arizona-Salt Lake game, which aired on NFL Network opposite CBS's presentation of the Grammy Awards, eked out a 0.4 overnight rating.)
The next chance the AAF has to draw a crowd will arrive on April 27, when the eight-team league presents its inaugural championship game. As with Saturday night's opening salvo, the final game of the 2019 AAF season will air on CBS.