The NFL season — somehow, some way — is actually kicking off tonight in Kansas City with NBC’s broadcast of the Chiefs game against the Houston Texans. The return of pro football (plus select college games) is coming not a moment too soon for a television advertising business trying to end this tempestuous year on a positive note.
Of all the parts of the media landscape wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, live sports is the most precious. The multibillion-dollar sports TV ad business has had a hole blown out of it, though the return of golf, soccer, baseball and NBA basketball has brought encouraging results.
As the NFL returns on NBC and networks plan two dozen college telecasts this weekend, though, football carries even more weight than usual because TV production is still waylaid by the pandemic. Networks have not even announced the completion of their upfront advertising sales for 2020-21 — usually a cornerstone that is laid by the end of the spring.
In a report Thursday, veteran Wall Street analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson emphasized that NFL ratings “are the biggest driver of network ratings and ultimately where the ad dollars flow.” In 2019 (excluding the Super Bowl), he wrote, NFL games and shoulder programming made up 61% of live/same-day viewing on Fox, 28% on CBS and ESPN and 27% on NBC. “The share might be even bigger this time around,” he added. “Of course, given the premium CPMs associated with the NFL, the impact on ad revenues is even more pronounced.”
Dan Lovenger, EVP Sales and Partnerships for NBC Sports, told Deadline the network is “ahead of where we were last year in terms of upfront and scatter for the NFL.” He declined to get specific on trends in terms of rates or other metrics but he said the demand is “not a surprise” given the historic strength of NFL telecasts even in non-pandemic times.
Some categories, of course — movies or travel, for example — are still emerging from the depths of the crisis. But other categories, like consumer packaged goods and pharmaceuticals, have shifted upfront commitments from elsewhere in prime time to Sunday Night Football, Lovenger said. Insurance and tech are also strong categories.
CBS also said sales are pacing well. Earlier this week, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said on a media conference call that “sales are very brisk,” pacing at “the exact level we paced at last year.” John Bogusz, EVP Sports Sales and Marketing for CBS, confirms to Deadline, “We are very happy about where we are.” Ratings-wise, he added, expectations are upbeat. “People were hungry for live sports when they were gone for months,” he noted, and many are likely to look forward to tuning back in.
Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, appearing Thursday at an online Bank of America conference, said he does not expect ad cannibalization even though the pandemic has created overlap between major sports this fall. “It’s something we thought about,” he said. “There’s been zero sign of [cannibalization]. In fact, probably the opposite.”
The look and feel of games will be quite different this year, which represents an unknown for both networks and advertisers. Only a handful of the league’s 32 teams will be permitting fans in their stadiums due to COVID-19 concerns. Even those that do (including Kansas City tonight) will have strict limits on capacity, with the Chiefs welcoming about 17,000 fans at Arrowhead Stadium. It’s hard to know how a stadium 22% full will look in prime time, not to mention major markets like New York or LA whose venues will be completely empty all year.
“Not having fans in the stands – sure, it will be different,” Lovenger said. “But I actually look at it and see potentially using new things with advertisers.” The Sunday broadcasts on NBC will include a “fan mosaic” airing two to four times during the game, a rare moment for fans to get significant screen time.
Another X factor is the protests against racial injustice that have rocked society — and the sports world in particular — in recent months. McManus said CBS will broadcast the national anthem in Week 1 and will not “keep our heads in the sand” as far as depicting expressions by players and coaches. In 2016 and 2017, kneeling during the anthem by Colin Kaepernick and dozens of other players was cited by network executives as one of the reasons ratings took a dip before rebounding strongly in 2018 and 2019.
NFL players joined those in the NBA, Major League Baseball and other sports in striking last month after a police shooting of an Black man in Kenosha, WI. Some players in the NFL — more than two-thirds of whose players are Black — have indicated they plan some form of protest once the season begins, though the nature of it is not yet clear.
The NBA restart on TNT, ESPN and ABC has been broadly considered a success. The league tackled the Black Lives Matter movement head-on, painting its name on the court in Orlando, FL, and allowing players to commemorate it with slogans on their jerseys. According to a report by ad tracking firm iSpot and Inscape, a subsidiary of smart-TV maker Vizio measuring viewing in 16 million households, several advertisers have embraced the protests in their creative messages. But most of the spots served to viewers — 24% of whom were watching NBA games in July and August — were down-the-middle plugs for Burger King, Gatorade and the like.
Jon Diament, EVP of Ad Sales and Marketing for Turner Sports, told Deadline the mood at the WarnerMedia division has improved markedly since the dark days in mid-March. The cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament – a lucrative co-venture between Turner and CBS – dealt a major blow and the late-springtime, when NBA playoff games typically bring in healthy ad revenue, went dark.
By July, though, the NBA had finalized its “bubble” plan to resume its season in Orlando, FL, and has managed to remain virtually virus-free. Major League Baseball telecasts on TBS got back on track and while that sport has seen some major wobbles with COVID-19, a potential plan for a playoff bubble are boons for Turner and Fox.
“Ironically, the hiatus in some ways helped,” Diament said. “Marketers shifted their businesses and came forward with more new strategies.” NBA inventory, he said, is “essentially sold out.” TNT will have the Western Conference Finals later this month, which could feature a marquee matchup between the LA Lakers and LA Clippers.
Baseball, according to Inscape, outdid the NBA in July and August, with 25% of all sets tuning into games, though view time as a percentage of the overall was lower than the NBA’s share.
Howard Levinson, SVP Sales for the YES network, which carries New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets games, said the return of sports has essentially been an existential relief for the network. Regional sports networks like Yes — which in 2019 changed hands and is now owned by the Yankees, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Amazon and private-equity investors, have been particularly hard-hit during the pandemic. A multi-party scramble has ensued, with networks, operators and leagues all looking to resolve guarantees and those paying fees seeking relief for periods when no games were played.
Levinson, who has ridden out the storm from New York City and seen it go from the epicenter of the pandemic to one of the least virus-ridden places in the country, is optimistic that the worst of 2020 is behind the network. “Seven-inning doubleheaders, no fans, whatever it takes, we’re just excited to have games back on the air,” he said.
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