Super Bowl ad sales are going swimmingly, even if NFL refs are driving fans to drink
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.
Bristle at the whistleblowers
After a catastrophic blown call in last season’s NFC Championship Game killed off any residual shot the New Orleans Saints had of advancing to Super Bowl LIII, the NFL introduced a new instant replay-assisted review for pass interference (PI) penalties that it hoped would prevent any future game-changing howlers. Trouble is, the officials are effectively blowing off the reviews, sticking to their guns in a way that suggests that they may not be on the same page as the rest of the league.
According to NFL Research data, while coaches in the first nine weeks of the season have challenged 53 pass interference calls, only five of those rulings have been overturned by the zebras. In other words, 9 percent of the judgments as originally rendered on the field have been overturned, which is a remarkably low correction rate given a) the inherent fallibility of man, and b) the fact that the officiating this fall has sucked harder than the Dyson booth at a vacuum-cleaner convention.
The refs’ seeming unwillingness to overturn PI calls perhaps would be less jarring if they weren’t going about their business when the red flag gets tossed in protest of all the other dodgy infractions. During the same period in which officials found themselves to be in the right 91 times out of 100, they’ve been far more even-handed with their other reviews, overturning 33 of 72 calls, or 46 percent.
So what gives? After bearing witness last month to the season’s most egregious example of a blown call that was allowed to stand uncorrected—during a “Thursday Night Football” game on Fox, officials were unbothered by a blatant PI infraction committed by Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones, who all but put Giants wideout Golden Tate in handcuffs while defending a fourth-quarter pass—sportswriters went all-in on the guys in the striped shirts. Yahoo Senior NFL Reporter Charles Robinson accused the refs of “going rogue,” while Newsday’s Tom Rock wondered what sort of chthonic deity must be invoked in order to actually get a PI challenge overturned.
After the game, Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said that while he’d hoped the officials would correct the no-call, he wasn’t exactly floored by their subsequent inaction. “We see that replay doesn’t overturn much, so I’m not surprised,” Shurmur said. Tate later allowed that he thought the penalty was too flagrant to resist a revision, before conceding, “But I’m not the referee and I don’t make the rules.”
While the apparent uselessness of the experimental PI review rule is about as exasperating as the harrowing nobody-knows-what-a-catch-is crisis of 2017, at least the fruitless reassessments aren’t inordinately drawing out the amount of time it takes to play the game. Whereas the average duration of a 2018 NFL contest last season was three hours and 12 minutes, the Pats and Giants banged out their assignment in three hours and 2 minutes. Thank heavens for small favors.
The more conspiracy-minded among us believe that the league has ordered the networks to cut to commercial during many PI reviews, which at least one broadcast producer has denied. And these NFC West rivals may not agree on much, but they are united in the belief that the NFL initiated the new PI review as a means to rig the system, rather than mollify the endlessly caterwauling Saints fan base.
In terms of the impact the officials are having on the games themselves, you needn’t have a tin-foil hat clamped to your crown in order to arrive at the conclusion that the refs are getting a little flag-happy. Through the first nine weeks of the season, officials have levied 1,941 penalties at a cost of 16,407 yards, a tossed-hanky frenzy that marks an increase of 140 calls (+8 percent) and 1,049 yards (+7 percent) compared to the year-ago period.
Thus far in the 2019 campaign, there have been 446 penalties assessed for offensive holding, that 10-yard-chewing boo-boo that accounts for 23 percent of all infractions. That’s up 26 percent compared to the analogous period last fall, when the refs whistled for 351 offensive holding penalties. In other words, if you’ve begun to suspect that the NFL has devolved into an endless pageant of momentum-throttling penalties, you may be onto something. Holding calls to date have stripped offenses of 4,305 yards of territory, up 28 percent from 3,370 yards.
As for the hot-button issue that is the defensive pass interference (DPI) call, those numbers are flat versus the year-ago span. Officials have flung the laundry for DPI 123 times this season, resulting in a forfeiture of 2,052 yards. Last season at this time, DPI penalties were issued 125 times, for a loss of 2,227 yards.
As aggravating as all the official humbuggery has been to fans and those among us who may place the occasional wager on the outcome of a game—if you took the under in Monday’s Cowboy-Giants game, Daniel Jones’ last-second fumble and Dallas’ subsequent recovery for a touchdown was tantamount to the young quarterback robbing you at knifepoint—the controversy doesn’t seem to have scared off many viewers. According to Nielsen, deliveries for all local and national NFL windows are up 5 percent versus the first half of the 2018 season, as the networks are currently averaging 15.9 million viewers and an 8.9 household rating.
Like proverbial hot cakes
Fox Corp. Executive Chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch on Wednesday told investors that the network’s ad sales team has already sold a good chunk of in-game inventory ahead of its Feb. 2 broadcast of Super Bowl LIV. In the Q&A portion of the company’s quarterly earnings call, Murdoch said that Fox was pacing “well ahead of last year’s Super Bowl,” before correcting himself, saying that he obviously couldn’t say for sure how far down the road CBS was at this time a year ago.
“We’re well ahead of our last Super Bowl, where we were selling at this stage in the year,” Murdoch said. While it’s uncertain exactly how far along Fox was in the process back in November 2016, by early December of that same year the network had said that it had sold off approximately 90 percent of its available Super Bowl LI spots.
While Murdoch didn’t exactly provide molecular-level details about advertiser demand and pricing, the Fox chief confirmed that Seth Winter and his sales force have already closed out some of the game’s most high-impact avails. “We’re sold out of all of our ‘A’ positions,” Murdoch said, referring to the very first commercials to air in each individual ad break. A positions are generally among the first units to get snapped up by Super Bowl advertisers; in 2018, CBS had sold all of its lead-off spots in the Big Game by Halloween.
Because Fox is selling fewer breaks—the network and the NFL have agreed to cut to commercial four times per quarter rather than the traditional five—it also has fewer A positions to sell. Demand for those lead-off units generally results in an early rush by marketers to nail down one of the 20 available spots, and with the number of A positions having been slashed to 16, Fox has been able to lend an even greater sense of urgency to this year’s NFL showcase.
As has been the case for the last three seasons, a 30-second Super Bowl spot will cost more than $5 million a pop. Such is the price of reaching some 100 million viewers during America’s greatest secular holiday. (Sorry, Thanksgiving.)
“I don’t want to give the number, but [Winter’s team is] quite confident the pricing will certainly be the highest cost per 30-second ad in a Super Bowl to date,” Murdoch said. “So we are very pleased with that.”
Buyers have indicated that Fox is charging between $5.5 million and $5.6 million for an in-game Super Bowl unit. CBS last year priced its inventory at around $5.2 million.
Certainly Fox’s ad sales efforts have been bolstered by the NFL’s season-long ratings boom. On track to lay claim to TV’s highest-rated program for the tenth consecutive year, Fox is currently averaging 23.7 million viewers and a 13.5 household rating with its “America’s Game of the Week” showcase, which marks a 7 percent improvement compared to its year-ago 22.1 million/12.7. At the same time, deliveries for Fox’s “Thursday Night Football” package, the No. 2 primetime program behind only NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” are up 19 percent.
Before moving on to matters wholly unrelated to pro football, Murdoch told analysts that he could not provide an update on where Fox is with regard to its plan to re-up with the NFL before its current contract expires after the 2022 season. “Obviously, we’re engaged with the NFL everyday as we broadcast their fixtures, but negotiations with the NFL in terms of a renewal of any of the packages has not started yet,” Murdoch said.
N.B.: “Fixture” is an Anglicism for “game” or “match.”
Hopping off the bandwagon
In the absence of Klay Thompson (ACL) and Kevin Durant (BKLYN), the 2019-20 NBA season was already looking like a tough climb for the Golden State Warriors. But after Steph Curry broke his hand on Oct. 30 in the third quarter of Golden State’s 121-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns, one of the NBA’s leading TV draws has been reduced to a squad of rookies and journeymen that aren’t likely to move the Nielsen dials for TNT and ESPN.
Curry underwent surgery on his busted left mitt on Halloween, and while the prospect of losing the services of the league’s deadliest shooter for at least three months is unsettling, he’s expected to make a full recovery. In the meantime, the NBA’s media partners will have to make do with Golden State’s cobbled-together roster of curiosities; tonight’s starters include the peripatetic Glenn Robinson III (the Dubs are his fifth stopover in six seasons) and rookies Eric Paschall and Ky Bowman.
While Curry’s recovery undoubtedly will take a bite out of the TV deliveries—at the very least, he’s expected to miss 10 nationally televised games on ESPN and another four TNT slots—the NBA’s media partners don’t start backing in the Brinks trucks until the playoffs tip off in April. A few Audience Deficiency Units here and there aren’t exactly going to break the bank in the regular season.
ESPN is expected to take the brunt of any Curry-related underdeliveries, as its early Dubs-casts are unlikely to be flexed out for more promising contests. As the AP’s Joe Reedy points out, ESPN is more or less stuck with its 2019 schedule (“any changes are unlikely until January since production and travel schedules are pretty set.”)
But Bristol has no need for your tears; as Curry convalesces, the cable network and sibling broadcaster ABC will carry nine games featuring LeBron and the Lakers, a schedule that includes a sure-to-be-mammoth Staples Center shakeup on Christmas Day. Last year’s Lakers-Dubs game was the most-watched, highest-rated NBA broadcast of the regular season, averaging 10.2 million viewers and a 5.3 household rating, securing L.A.’s position as the biggest Dec. 25 draw this side of the Yule Log.
Of course, even when Curry is back in fine fettle, the patched-up Warriors are unlikely to continue their five-year reign of terror in the Western Conference. Golden State heads into tonight’s game in Minnesota with a 2-6 record, leaving only New Orleans and the wounded phenom Zion Williamson between them and the cellar. But as much as Steve Kerr’s charges will be missed in the postseason, where they have been the most consistent provider of blockbuster GRPs, deep runs by big-market franchises like the Lakers, Clippers, Celtics, Nets and Sixers should go a long way toward making advertisers forget the painful start to the 2019-20 season.
Read between the lines
The pet theory around the NFL rights auction is that ratings-challenged ABC needs to find a path back to broadcasting primetime football, but any return to its “Monday Night Football” heyday will necessitate a simulcast play with ESPN. Long story short: ABC can’t compete in the marketplace without all those NFL impressions, while ESPN can’t afford to give up the rights to the content that allows it to charge distributors the highest carriage fee in the business ($9.06 per sub per month).
ABC and ESPN have demonstrated that they work well together, with the cable net for decades having sold and produced its broadcast sibling’s NBA and college football coverage. The aforementioned Clippers-Lakers egg nog game will air simultaneously on ABC and ESPN, and the two outlets in recent years have buddied up on an annual NFL Wild Card Game and the league’s spring draft. So joint custody of “Monday Night Football” just makes a lot of horse sense, right?
Bob Iger seems to think so. At least that’s what we heard Thursday evening during Disney’s quarterly earnings call. During the requisite Q&A session with analysts, the Mouse House boss seemed to hint that a team effort is in the works: “And I think you’re likely to see more sports on ABC as the value of live grows on the basically linear channels.”
As was the case with Fox’s Lachlan Murdoch the day before, Iger did not offer any particulars about the state of Disney’s NFL negotiations, and it’s more than likely that the league will want to nail down a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union before it begins hashing out its next round of media rights deals. But Iger obviously has bigger plans in mind than a simple renewal of ESPN’s standing Monday night package.
In May, Iger told analysts that “there has been some exploration as to whether there was an opportunity” to explore picking up the NFL Sunday Ticket rights from DirecTV. “We are very bullish about the relationship ESPN has with the NFL, and I think we all believe that there are opportunities to strengthen our relationship with them,” Iger said during the spring earnings call.
Competition for that out-of-market package will be heated, especially if the FAANG crowd decides to mix it up with AT&T and the legacy TV networks.
During yesterday’s presentation, Iger also revealed that ESPN Plus had surpassed 3.5 million subs during the last financial quarter, or just 18 months after launch. He went on to affirm that the OTT (over-the-top) service will play a key role in any linear TV deal Disney makes. “What ESPN Plus is teaching us is that the opportunity for the company with sports is probably multiplatform,” Iger said. “Our simultaneous coverage of the NFL draft would probably be a great example of that. … When you add that to ESPN and its channels and you add that to ABC, that's an opportunity.”
Cat’s half in the bag
Enjoy the spectacle of Westwood One’s Kevin Harlan working a plug for sponsor CDW Healthcare into his spiel about a cat that runs out onto the field during Monday night’s Cowboys-Giants game. Harlan, whose mastery of narrating moments of incidental weirdness is unrivaled, begins relating the particulars of the cat’s moment of gridiron glory as if the furry beast were the feline reincarnation of Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost.
“And the cat is elusive!” Harlan yelps, as New Jersey state troopers and MetLife Stadium attendants attempt to pin the interloper down in the end zone. As the cat darts into the stands in a last grasp at sweet freedom, Harlan cranks up the drama, informing his listeners that “the fans are running for their lives!”
After the game, the person managing the stadium’s Twitter account revealed that the cat had disappeared under the stands, where it very likely remains to this day, feasting on bits of hot dogs, stray chicken tenders and the occasional Meadowlands mouse. While the Giants appeared unfazed by the feline disruption, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and team owner Jerry Jones were shaken to the core.
“I haven’t seen one glare at me that far away before,” Jones later told ESPN’s Todd Archer. “I know he was looking at me the whole time he was out there.” The man’s worth $8.4 billion and he’s paralyzed with fear by something with all the brainpower of a package of Lunchables. Sheesh.