The NFL Returns, Giving Struggling Networks a $5 Billion Ad Revenue Lifeline

Demand is up as other top-tier fall TV options dwindle

The Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson face off as the NFL season kicks off tonight. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images
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After most professional sports were sidelined in March by Covid-19, several leagues, including the MLB and NBA, have returned in the past two months to great audience and advertiser excitement. But when it comes to both ad revenue and audience size, those sports pale in comparison to the NFL, which kicks off its season tonight—and is throwing struggling networks an ad revenue lifeline that could be as much as $5 billion.

While the advertising industry has been bracing for an NFL season unlike any other, “We all feel really good about the NFL,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director of integrated investments at Mediahub. “Everyone is so excited about it” and anticipating big ratings for the new season, which begins tonight on NBC as the Kansas City Chiefs take on the Houston Texans.

Several media companies whose bottom lines have been decimated during the pandemic, in large part because of the lack of live sports (including ViacomCBS, which reported a 27% decline in Q2 advertising revenue due to Covid-19, and NBCUniversal, which had a similar 27% Q2 ad revenue drop), are counting on the NFL to help them rebound at the end of the year.

After all, last season the NFL generated an estimated $4.6 billion in national TV ad revenue, according to Kantar Media: $3.3 billion in the regular season and an additional $1.3 billion in the playoffs and Super Bowl. That’s more than double the national TV ad revenue last season from the NBA, MLB and NHL combined ($2 billion).

That number could climb even higher this year, as the Big Ten and Pac-12 have already postponed their college football seasons due to Covid-19, and continued production shutdowns mean the biggest scripted broadcast series won’t return to the air until November or early 2021, leaving advertisers with fewer options for gross ratings points in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve got a marginalized college football season,” said Dan Lovinger, evp of advertising sales at NBC Sports Group. “And there’s no doubt there’s diminished capacity overall in prime time over the past couple of years. That is leading marketers to say, where can I go find quality ratings and reach, and Sunday Night Football is first in line for most marketers there.”

As a result, NBC Sports has seen greater Sunday Night Football demand this year than it did at this point last year, said Lovinger, while Fox’s NFL sales are also pacing ahead of previous years, according to a source. And CBS has sold as much NFL inventory going into the season as it did at the same point last season, said John Bogusz, evp, sports sales and marketing, CBS Network sales.

Even in a normal year, the NFL would have been one of TV’s top draws this fall. “The NFL is an important asset from a media plan execution standpoint. It is a consistent product that delivers significant ratings week in and week out without some of the challenges that entertainment programming has, and you know what you’re getting into,” said Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead at GroupM’s Mindshare. “So that creates this opportunity, particularly in the current environment, for clients to look at: Is there a way to expand?”

This is especially the case given that the NFL will have less of the pitfalls that have caused several MLB games to be postponed due to positive Covid-19 tests. NFL teams will only play one game a week, which means less travel and less chance of potential coronavirus exposure.

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@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.