A year after facing steep declines, NFL ad pricing is on the rebound
Welcome to 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.
Back in Black
NFL ad pricing has rebounded after last year’s drop, as buyers report that the average unit cost of a 30-second in-game spot purchased in the 2019-20 upfront was up between 5 percent and 10 percent compared to the year-ago bazaar. Dollar volume also has improved, with advertisers pinning more of their budgets to media’s most reliable reach vehicle.
Pricing increases are determined by a number of factors, including day parts, ratings projections and the pedigree of the teams competing in a given broadcast. Thus far, one of the most expensive buys on the schedule is the Cowboys-Patriots showdown set to air in Fox’s national Sunday afternoon window on Nov. 24; the average cost of buying a half-minute spot in this rare meeting between America’s Team and the defending Super Bowl champs is north of $800,000 a pop.
Despite the higher cost of reaching NFL fans, media partners CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN are holding back inventory for what is expected to be a powerhouse scatter market. All told, the four networks nailed down more than $2 billion in regular-season upfront commitments, thanks in large part to the NFL’s hegemonic chokehold over the rest of the TV space and a 2018 ratings rebound that went a long way toward calming many advertisers’ nerves after two consecutive years of declines.
Per Nielsen, NFL deliveries were up 5 percent a year ago, as all local and national broadcasts drew an average TV audience of 15.8 million viewers and a 9.1 household rating. Among the biggest gainers were NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” which improved 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively, with an average draw of 19.2 million viewers and an 11.0 rating, and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” up 7 percent to 11.4 million/6.8.
As has been the case for the last 10 seasons, Fox’s Sunday afternoon window was the most-watched, highest-rated program on TV, averaging 23.1 million viewers and a 12.7 rating—flat versus the year-ago period. CBS’s coast-to-coast Sunday afternoon package was a close second, drawing 22.2 million viewers and a 12.4 rating, good for a 5 percent hike compared to the 2017 season.
Buyers say the usual suspects will return to the NFL this year, as there were very few defections during the upfront sell-off. In other words, get ready for a barrage of in-game creative from the likes of Verizon, Geico, Toyota, Apple, Hyundai, Ford, Chevrolet, Progressive, State Farm and Samsung Mobile. (The leading NFL backers are based on iSpot.tv data from 2018.)
Category spend is what you’d expect with the NFL, as automotive, insurance, wireless, tech, quick-serve restaurants, financial services and beer brands will be well-represented throughout the coming season. As has been the case across TV, pharma has increased its NFL spend, as new iterations of established compounds and treatments for serious maladies such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes have made network sales execs forget all about the money that once poured in courtesy of the now all-but-defunct phylum of ED meds.
The boost in sales activity comes on the heels of a year that saw pricing slide across all NFL TV platforms. According to SQAD MediaCosts:National data, the average cost for a 30-second unit in a regular-season NFL game last season was “at its lowest level last season since 2015.”
According to SQAD’s analysis, the “Sunday Night Football” unit cost slid 9 percent to $599,199 a pop, down from $656,080 in 2017, while Fox, CBS and ESPN experienced even steeper declines with their respective NFL offerings. Per SQAD, with an average unit cost of $634,415 per :30, the Fox national Sunday afternoon window remained the priciest NFL buy—this, despite the fact that the going rate fell 13 percent compared to the year-ago $717,702. the pricing drop for CBS’s national package was consistent with NBC’s 9 percent downturn; according to SQAD, a unit in the Eye network’s 4:20 p.m. games cost around $562,372, down from $613,702 in 2017.
While the NFL is arguably the most crucial network asset—in 2018, NFL games accounted for 34 of the top 50 most-watched broadcasts, and 61 of the top 100—no broadcaster relies upon the Shield more than Fox. According to MoffettNathanson estimates, the NFL in 2018 accounted for 63 percent of Fox’s overall in-season GRPs, while contributing about a quarter of the impressions for CBS, NBC and ESPN during the same span. With the addition of the “Thursday Night Football” package, Fox by far has the most skin in the game, laying claim to around 40 percent of all in-season NFL deliveries.
Fox’s endosymbiont relationship with the NFL will be even more glaringly evident in February, as the network hosts Super Bowl LIV. Fox’s coverage of the Big Game is expected to generate in-game ad revenue north of $400 million.
Brought to you by…
AdAge’s E.J. Schultz has the scoop on Pepsi’s renewal of its Super Bowl halftime sponsorship, which it has re-upped through 2022. The extension comes on the heels of the NFL’s new agreement with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. In addition to locking in brand ownership of the annual song-and-dance spectacle, Pepsi also has a season-long campaign in the works. Developed by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the “Always Be Celebrating” effort will kick off with a pair of national TV spots.
Speaking of NFL sponsors, in light of Oakley’s new four-year pact with the league, Sports Business Daily has updated its cheatsheet of backers. The NFL Spons-O-Meter can be found here.
Elsewhere in the issue, SBD’s Terry Lefton offered a breakdown of the various activations planned for last night's Packers-Bears opener. Among the corporate sponsors that set up in Chicago’s Grant Park were EA Sports, Bud Light, Snickers, Microsoft, Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Verizon, Bridgestone, Castrol, Lowe’s, Marriott, Panini, Sleep Number, Visa and Wilson.
The [Big] Show must go on (but it won’t)
The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis will leave readers of a certain age nostalgic for the heyday of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” which for a brief four-and-a-half-year interval was the most inspired, cerebral and entertaining sports show on the tube. To say that Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick revolutionized the highlights show is to suggest that Steve Jobs did some interesting things with circuit boards and mobile communications technology—it’s a rhetorical understatement that flirts with meiosis. Curtis’ feature is constructed around interviews with the two former ESPNers, and while Olbermann is, predictably enough, a bit of a pill—everything he says may be plotted on a graph with an x-axis that progresses from “crabby” to “choleric”—and Patrick remains as inscrutable as he was during his Bristol years, their recollections of “The Big Show” are well worth the time you’ll need to set away to read this 5,100-word piece.
And no, there won’t be a Keith-and-Dan reunion any time soon—as Patrick notes, “The Big Show” is “like Led Zeppelin—there’s no reunion tour,” as Curtis notes, the two trailblazers have left their mark on every extant scores-and-highlights package. (For our money, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt and his late-night “SportsCenter” are the spiritual successors to “The Big Show,” although, as he notes, the immediacy of our digital present has made a hash of such facile comparisons.)
The college football season opened without a primetime Alabama game, but the Crimson Tide’s SEC rivals Auburn did ABC a solid by staging a last-second comeback against Oregon. Ratings for the premiere of “ESPN’s Saturday Night Football” were up 51 percent compared to the year-ago Louisville-'Bama blowout, and while the Nielsen numbers were nowhere near as high as they were in 2017, it’s worth noting that only 19 episodes of ABC scripted series that aired in 2018-19 drew a larger audience than the Oregon-Auburn nail-biter.
Keeping it 100
Sports Business Journal’s special issue to mark the NFL’s 100th anniversary is a keeper, and while readers who dive in just about anywhere will find plenty to chew on, one of the standouts is Ben Fischer’s interview with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The league’s [figure]head talks up ratings, international expansion, the Jay-Z/Roc Nation partnership and the importance of engaging younger viewers via devices that reach far beyond the confines of the living room. Speaking of the FAANG disruptors, Goodell says he “firmly believe[s] that these other platforms are going to be players in future [rights] negotiations,” before adding that the Googles and Amazons are “frankly … [involved] in current negotiations.”
As much as the NFL’s TV partners are all but certain to have the digital upstarts breathing down their necks when the current rights package goes up for bid, NFL officials have intimated that the tech giants don’t have the capacity to host a pro football-scale event. Speaking at an industry event a year ago, NFL Chief Media and Business Officer Brian Rolapp suggested that Big Tech cannot presently satisfy the league’s top priority, which is to approach ubiquity. “Our entire model is about reaching as many people for as long as we can,” Rolapp said. “We can reach 25 million people [on broadcast TV], and I have not seen a live event on the Internet that can serve 25 million concurrent users at a high quality.”
Meet the Mets
The Athletic’s Tim Britton shadows the SNY MLB crew in a feature that gives Mets fans a sense of how Keith Hernandez, Gary Cohen and Ron Darling interact during their nightly three-hour stints. Britton bears witness to the versatility of the SNY booth, which is at the tail end of their 14th year together. Baseball’s smartest local crew is also its most freewheeling; among the topics the three broadcasters discuss during what turns out to be a blowout are Vincent Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, how the Nordstrom Rack caters to Hernandez’s large/irregular feet and the relative merits of jazz pianists Keith Jarrett, Dave Brubeck and Vladimir Horowitz.
First he managed to contract frostbite on his feet after spending too much time in a cryotherapy machine, then he nearly quit playing football altogether in a Quixotic attempt to be granted the right to wear an outlawed helmet. Now, with just days to go before Oakland is set to take on AFC rivals Denver on “Monday Night Football,” the Raiders are so tired of Antonio Brown’s soap-opera antics that they’re on the verge of suspending him. This is fantastic news if you drafted the wide receiver to your fantasy roster.