In a Bid to Pick Up the Pace, the NFL Will Kill Off Everyone's Least-Favorite Ad Break

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Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League.
Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League. Credit: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg

Months after kicking the tires on a modest reduction of in-game commercial stoppage, the NFL on Wednesday said that it is working with broadcasters on a scheme to restructure the ad pods in all future televised contests.

In an email to fans dated March 22, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is looking to cut down on some of the more egregious instances of "dead time" that have contributed to football's recent broadcast bloat. Last season, the average running time for an NFL game was three hours and 12 minutes, which marked an increase of five minutes per game compared to the 2014 average.

To that end, the NFL hopes to put the kibosh on one of football's most exasperating disruptions, which arrives whenever a post-scoring kickoff is sandwiched between two ad breaks.

"Together with our broadcast partners, we will be working to meaningfully reduce down time and the frequency of commercial breaks in our game," Mr. Goodell wrote. "We will also be giving our broadcast partners increased flexibility to avoid untimely breaks in the action. For example, we know how annoying it is when we come back from a commercial break, kick off, and then cut to a commercial again. I hate that too. Our goal is to eliminate it."

The NFL is also looking into reducing the number of commercial breaks from the standard five per quarter to four, while retaining the usual spot load. In other words, while fans will have fewer opportunities to raid the fridge, the pods that do air will eat up more clock. Although nothing's set in stone, one ad sales exec said it was likely that each in-game pod would be augmented by a single 30-second ad unit.

Under the new break structure, the net loss of ad inventory, if any, would be negligible. Moreover, a parallel proposal is in the works that would allow the networks to go to commercial during official replay reviews -- although plans are also in place to accelerate those interminable zebras-under-the-hood interludes. Thus, the revamped commercial architecture is less about picking the networks' pockets than it is an attempt to improve the end-user experience.

An actual reduction in ad inventory was never really in the cards, given the princely sums the networks pay for the privilege of carrying NFL games. Under the current rights package, the league's three broadcast partners (CBS, NBC and Fox) and ESPN will fork over a combined $39.6 billion in exchange for access to TV's last sure-fire reach vehicle.

The league took a first crack at a new break structure in Week 16. Among the national broadcasts that featured a revamped commercial schedule were two Christmas games (Ravens-Steelers on NFL Network and Broncos-Chiefs on NBC) and the Dec. 26 "Monday Night Football" finale (Lions-Cowboys).

ESPN eliminated a score-break-kickoff-break sequence early in the first quarter of its holiday experiment, before going on to forego two additional double-ups in the second quarter. That said, the network's affiliate agreements give it a bit less wiggle room than its broadcast rivals; on average, ESPN turns over two breaks per quarter to local spots.

As it happens, the Detroit-Dallas game also included an ad format that served as a reminder that the networks can still generate a good deal of revenue without having to make a clean break from the action. In the run-up to ESPN's "Toyota Halftime Show," the network ran a bifurcated ad format that featured a standard Toyota :30 on the right side of the screen and a live shot of the Cowboys and Lions heading to the locker room on the left side.

Mr. Goodell's comments were made just days before the NFL's 32 franchise owners are to meet in Phoenix for their annual spring confab. Among the other items said to be on the agenda are a vote to centralize the replay review process and a discussion regarding the Oakland Raiders' potential relocation from the Bay Area to Las Vegas.

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