Verizon and Toyota snap up key 'Thursday Night Football' sponsorships

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The Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams  Credit: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

With just two weeks to go before the National Football League season kicks off, it is of course far too early to hazard even an educated guess as to which team will hoist the Lombardi Trophy come February. Given the recent realignment of one of the key primetime rights packages, however, it's all but a given as to which TV network will rake in the most ad sales revenue during the regular season.

In the lead-up to its spring upfront presentation, Fox executives projected that the addition of "Thursday Night Football" to its Sunday football portfolio would give it control of a little more than 40 percent of the NFL gross ratings points that will be in play during the regular season. The math checks out; including its 11 Thursday night games and the massive reach vehicle that is the Sunday afternoon "America's Game of the Week" showcase, Fox this season will broadcast no fewer than 20 national NFL windows, along with a 17-week slab of regional coverage. No other NFL media partner comes close.

While "America's Game of the Week" remains the crown jewel in Fox's NFL treasure chest—the package last season averaged 23 million viewers and a 13.0 household rating, making it TV's most-watched, highest-rated program for the ninth straight year—the network hasn't exactly struggled to shift units in its "Thursday Night Football" schedule. Of particular interest were the newly available marquee sponsorships for the Thursday night pregame and halftime shows, premium positions that were snapped up by Verizon and Toyota, respectively.

That Verizon jumped at the chance to sponsor a primetime NFL pregame show is testament to the telco's longstanding enthusiasm for the sport. Not only has Verizon served as the official wireless sponsor of the league since 2010, but according to iSpot.tv estimates, the company leans harder on in-game NFL buys than any other TV environment. Last year, Verizon spent some $191.6 million on ad units in NFL broadcasts, a commitment that eclipsed its second-biggest investment, NBA units ($27.9 million).

Verizon's desire to seize Fox's Thursday pre-game sponsorship may also be seen as a function of its interest in getting in on the ground floor of a branding opportunity that is unlikely to present itself again any time soon. Marketers who do manage to nail down a marquee NFL position on Fox tend not to give them up; for example, Ford is heading into its sixteenth season as the sponsor of the pre-game show "Fox NFL Sunday," while the "Visa Halftime Show" has been branded as such for the better part of the last two decades.

If nothing else, Verizon's new pre-game deal suggests that it was satisfied by the results of its sponsorship of the halftime segments in each of Fox's 64 inaugural FIFA Men's World Cup broadcasts. Verizon's World Cup impressions peaked during the July 15 France Croatia final, as Fox's in-game coverage averaged 12.5 million viewers and a 6.8 household rating.

Like Verizon, Toyota devotes more of its TV budget to NFL inventory than any other programming. In 2017, according to iSpot.tv, the automaker pumped 101.7 million into in-game NFL ad buys, or about $81 million more than it laid out for time in its No. 2 platform (NBA broadcasts).

Toyota's decision to commit to the "Thursday Night Football" halftime show leaves ESPN with a vacancy in its own "Monday Night Football" package, although one agency executive suggested that the cable network has secured a replacement sponsor. Toyota had served as the exclusive sponsor of ESPN's NFL halftime show since 2006, when the rights to the "Monday Night Football" slate were transferred to the cable sports net from its broadcast sibling, ABC. The network had no comment.

Toyota's halftime show switcheroo should not be seen as a precursor to any sort of radical reduction in its overall ESPN spending. During the four-month period in which the NFL and college football dominate the airwaves, Toyota's combined ESPN/ABC investment is higher than for every other network except CBS and Fox.

Along with the impressions that will be generated by their respective marquee sponsorships, Verizon and Toyota also will look to capitalize on Fox's "Thursday Night Football" audience with a handful of in-game spot buys in each of the 11 scheduled broadcasts.

While "Thursday Night Football" last season reached a not-insignificant number of consumers (the shared NBC-CBS package closed out the 2017-18 broadcast campaign as the second highest-rated program on primetime TV, trailing only "Sunday Night Football"), Fox has a shot at putting up much higher ratings than its forebears, thanks to what appears to be a far superior schedule. Not only does its Thursday night slate kick off with what very well may prove to be a preview of the NFC Championship Game (Vikings-Rams), but subsequent match-ups include a showdown between the defending Super Bowl champs and the representative of the country's largest media market (Eagles-Giants) and a clash between the resurgent Saints and football's No. 1 draw, the Dallas Cowboys.

As one might well expect, the cost of getting out in front of Fox's primetime NFL audience is steep. According to media buyer estimates, the going rate for a 30-second spot in Fox's Thursday night games is $563,478 a pop. (Although more precise pricing estimates were not available at press time, in keeping with its unparalleled deliveries, Fox's "America's Game of the Week" broadcast remains the most expensive buy on TV. Last season, advertisers paid north of $760,000 for the average unit in Fox's national Sunday afternoon window.)

Buyers who've steered clients to the new-look "Thursday Night Football" slate said that in addition to the potential to reach an outsized audience, advertisers also are interested in trying out some new wrinkles Fox is said to be exploring in its prime time NFL broadcasts. One innovation fans may look forward to this fall is the introduction of two-minute single-sponsor ad units that are expected to air during the two-minute warning.

Meanwhile, if your marketing budget won't exactly accommodate a four-unit brick in a national NFL broadcast, far more inexpensive inventory is available via the Fox Sports Go streaming service. In turning to Fox's digital properties, advertisers may now connect with an NFL audience without having to fork over Rob Gronkowski-size CPMs.

Fox's coverage of "Thursday Night Football" kicks off on Sept. 27 when the Vikings travel to Los Angeles to square up against the Rams. Vegas oddsmakers currently are listing the Rams as the favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIII, while the Vikings are expected to make a deep playoff run behind its impenetrable defense.

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