NFL Ads Again A Goldmine For TV Networks

As marketer interest in other TV programming declines, demand for pro football continues its upward trajectory and has had a knock-on effect for other leagues like the NBA and NHL.

The upcoming NFL regular season is once again bringing a windfall of advertising dollars into the coffers of the league’s television partners, with ad inventory more than 90% sold out across the networks at close to double-digit ad rate increases that could boost total TV NFL ad sales revenue close to $7 billion.

Not only are the NFL telecasts already extremely well sold for both the regular season and playoffs, but Disney says its NBA and NHL telecasts on ESPN and ABC are also between 90% and 95% sold. Meanwhile, the Feb. 12 Super Bowl on Fox is also heavily sold.

Demand for the NFL has been so strong that upfront selling for football began even before the broadcast primetime upfront presentations and negotiations got underway.

“We had all of our NFL ad deals wrapped up by late May or early June,” says one media agency executive, who did not want to speak for attribution. “As the years go by, the NFL continues to set itself apart from everything else as a TV ad vehicle.”

Another buyer says NFL ad buys had to be made earlier by advertisers this year or risk being shut out.

“When you look at the loss of ratings in entertainment programming, the NFL, with its live eyeballs and strong viewership, has over the past few years convinced advertisers that it is a better place to spend more of their money,” the buyer adds.


Hefty Prices Don’t Matter

Advertisers are reportedly paying more than $850,000 for 30-second in-game commercials on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in many of the matchups, and also in the nationally televised Sunday late afternoon games on CBS and Fox, and those rates are expected to rise even more for remaining unsold inventory once the season begins and demand increases.

One buyer said he wouldn’t be surprised to see 30-second spots in SNF and the national Sunday games on Fox and CBS sell for more than $900,000 later in the season if there are any units still left.

Buyers and the network sales executives agree that this level of pricing would be the highest rates ever paid for single regular season 30-second ad units on television.

Of course, the NFL draws a massive audience, averaging more than 17 million viewers last season across all of its network partners and with the most watched games on NBC, CBS and Fox drawing between 25 million and 41 million.

As for upfront deals that were done for this season, buyers say that their clients were amenable to paying close to double-digit increases because they worried about being shut out for the big matchups as the season gets into November and December.

“Clearly advertisers realize that they have to spend more on NFL ad units even in the upfront to make sure they do not get shutout,” a buyer says, echoing the beliefs of several.

Largest Growing Ad Categories

Traditional big spending NFL advertisers in categories like automotive, insurance, beer and cell phone companies are all still allocating tens of millions of dollars, but this year pharmaceutical companies boosted their NFL spending most significantly over past years, according to the networks.

Travel advertisers are also returning to the NFL this fall in a big way, and QSR restaurants, streaming services and technology companies are also spending much more than they have in the past few years.

While the legalized gambling services are also increasing spending, there are still certain restrictions on them by the league.

Significantly More Ad Dollars Spent

Combine the increased interest in NFL telecasts by the large assortment of advertisers along with the price hikes the networks are able to charge based on heavy demand, and overall ad dollars taken in by each network is also up significantly.

Peter Lazarus, EVP of NBC Sports ad sales, says the network’s overall NFL ad sales dollar volume heading into the season is up between 15% and 20% over last season.

“Our opening night (Sept. 8) Kickoff game is sold out and so are many of our high-profile matchups during the season,” he says. “Overall, we are more than 90% sold out for the season.”

Jim Minnich, SVP of revenue and yield management for sports at Disney Ad Sales, says both ABC and ESPN have also taken in double-digit percentage more ad dollars than last year heading into the NFL season, which includes both rate increases and more spending by advertisers.

John Bogusz, EVP, CBS Sports sales, says CBS is also more than 90% sold out of NFL inventory with sellout levels heading into the season at a higher rate than last year.

“The NFL marketplace overall has been more active and much stronger than last year,” Bogusz says. “We have not had any significant falloff in any category.”

As for Fox, while the network did not make an executive available to talk about NFL sales, Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch addressed the subject on the company’s quarterly earnings call in August.

He said that Fox sold more NFL Sunday ad inventory in this year’s upfront, at record pricing for the network, than it sold for both its Sunday and Thursday telecasts during the same period last year.

Reaching Women

Broadcast scripted entertainment show audiences have traditionally been predominantly more female than male, but as viewership has fragmented more into streaming, advertisers are finding that in many cases it is preferable for them to now try to reach women watching the NFL telecasts.

On any given Sunday on the broadcast networks or Monday Night on ESPN, there are more women watching NFL games than are watching broadcast primetime. And the NFL games are live, which keeps attention spans sharp.

As one media buyer says, “Dating back two or three years ago, advertisers began realizing that the NFL is getting more female viewers than most broadcast and cable primetime shows. There are more pure female impressions in NFL games and more women are becoming NFL game watchers every year. The NFL has become more of a snapshot of the U.S. in terms of gender. It is no longer only watched predominantly by men.”

Another buyer adds, “The NFL games now draw more women than broadcast primetime shows, so advertisers are choosing to reach women via the NFL.”

And both network and agency execs say that while some advertisers in various categories are moving into the NFL for the first time to target female viewers, traditional NFL advertisers are also focusing their commercials more to capture the attention of women in-game watchers by using more female actresses and female themes.

Other Sports Sales Also Strong

Advertising in National Football League games is by far the most expensive on television by a wide margin. But even though the NBA and NHL don’t have regular season or playoff viewership levels close to the NFL, their ad units are still in very high demand, selling out way in advance of the season because they are live and reach viewer profiles hard to find elsewhere in broadcast and cable primetime.

The interest by advertisers in not only the NFL but in the other major fall and winter sports, has helped Disney put together assorted packages that have motivated advertisers to make their buys for all sports at the same time. And ESPN has been successful at expanding its sports ad packages even more.

Peyton and Eli Manning

“We are now showing NFL games not only on ESPN, but our mini-casts on ESPN2 hosted by the Mannings, on ABC, on ESPN+ and on ESPN Deportes,” Disney’s Minnich says. “And we are also able to augment our in-game NFL, NBA and NHL buys with ads in Sports Centers and our other live sports shows.”

Adds Minnich, “We can offer live sports overlapping each other in our deals on a year-round basis selling NFL, college football, NBA, NHL, college basketball, MLB, the Home Run Derby, as well as the playoffs in the major sports.”

Minnich says NBA and NHL ads are also both between 90%-95% sold for the entire upcoming season. And that, he says, follows this past season’s NBA playoffs on ESPN that drew 49 new advertisers in 18 new categories.

Meanwhile, NBC Universal, which owns the Spanish-language rights to the soccer World Cup, is 90% sold out of its ad inventory for the matches that will air on Telemundo and Peacock beginning in November.

Amazon Prime Learning Curve

Fox giving up Thursday Night Football created an interesting new dynamic for the NFL with Amazon Prime securing the new 11-year rights deal to stream 15 games each season at a cost of $1 billion a year.

It’s a hefty cost initially for Amazon to pay since it seemingly will take some time for it to draw enough of an audience to cover that $1 billion annual rights fee. And according to ad data, Fox took in $681 million in advertising for its TNF games last season.

Fox also averaged about 15 million viewers last season on its Thursday night NFL telecasts and was reportedly getting about $500,000 per 30-second spot.

Early on in the ad selling upfront, Amazon, according to media buyers, was looking to base its ad

unit pricing on what Fox was charging last season and many of the media agencies balked, causing Amazon to re-evaluate its game plan.

“Amazon thought Thursday Night Football would sell itself,” says one media buyer. “They paid a windfall of cash for the rights. And they came out asking too much for advertising. The rates they were asking for were too high.”

Another agency buyer adds, “It took Amazon a while to get into a proper selling mode. They basically were projecting they would draw the same number of viewers as Fox did. Their audience estimates were anticipating no drop off from Fox. The vast majority of our clients are buying the NFL for mass immediate reach and right now streaming telecasts can’t offer that.”

Since Amazon is not releasing details of its pricing and the agencies aren’t talking about their deals, it is hard to evaluate how much NFL ad revenue Amazon has taken in so far. But a handful of media buyers are

in agreement that, based on their own agency’s buys, Amazon Prime is heading into the season with about 50% to 60% of its NFL inventory sold.

However, there are some caveats, and it is important to realize that both NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Amazon understand it is going to take some time for a streaming service to build up an audience that rivals that of NFL TV partner networks that have been televising the league for years.

Early Positive For Amazon

One immediate positive that Amazon Prime can point to relates to its first primetime streamed NFL preseason game between the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans on Aug. 25, which drew ad buys from some traditionally large NFL ad spenders.

The second and third biggest NFL TV ad spenders in 2021 – Verizon and GEICO – each ran ad units in the Prime Video-streamed game. Also advertising in that game were two other Top 10 NFL ad spenders on the other NFL partner networks from last year, AT&T and Apple.

Among the other advertisers in that preseason streamed game included Allstate; Autotrader; Bristol Myers Squibb; Burger King; Fidelity; General Motors; KFC; Jersey Mike’s Subs; Bayer HealthCare; J.M. Smucker; Nerdwallet and Sony.

While neither Amazon nor the agencies would discuss specific pricing, and while it is likely that the projected viewership was nowhere close to what the other networks have been drawing, it is an indication that many big spending advertisers who have done deals are simply interested in reaching the streaming NFL audience that Amazon Prime will provide.

How Amazon Sees Its NFL Future

Amazon points to a study that predicts between 2021 and 2025 digital sports viewership is expected to grow by 71% to 107.4 million people, and that could vastly grow the number of people who might want to start watching NFL games via streaming.

Right now, there are 80 million Prime Video households in the U.S. that could watch the NFL via Amazon Prime. In order to do so, one has to be an Amazon Prime subscriber and pay an annual fee of $139.

Amazon believes that younger viewers are the future for the NFL and part of its sales pitch to the agencies is that on average its Thursday Night Football streaming viewers are five years younger than NFL linear TV viewers.

Amazon also says based on a study by Kantar, that its Prime Video audience has a 36% higher household income than linear NFL viewers.

Amazon is also touting its NFL game coverage, which includes its top-quality on-air talent and many special interactive features that it will offer during the telecasts.

Amazon Prime viewers will also have access to X-Ray for the live sports coverage, which will allow them to call up real-time stats, replays and player information as they watch the NFL games.

Nielsen will measure viewership of the national games on Prime Video and also the local viewership in the two markets of the teams playing each Thursday. The NFL mandates that coverage of the two teams playing in the Thursday national game each week must be shown on a local TV channel in their particular market.

Amazon Prime also has a deal with DirecTV to show their games in out-of-home locations like bars and restaurants, and Nielsen will measure that audience, too.

In addition to advertisers being able to make pure viewer number comparisons using Nielsen measurement data, they will also have the ability to use additional data that Prime Video will supply about its viewers that will help them better understand and be able to reach those viewers on other Amazon platforms.

Danielle Carney, head of NFL sales at Amazon, said via email, “For both fans and advertisers, TNF on Prime Video combines the NFL experience with the advantages of digital. The TNF digital broadcast gives brands new ways to connect with fans at scale through interactive features, alternate feeds, and unique activations.”

Carney adds that “in addition to familiar Nielsen measurement advertisers can use to make apples-to-apples comparisons across their media investments, our first party metrics open up new opportunities that aren’t available to brands through linear TV. Advertisers can see how their brands and products are doing on and off Amazon in relation to their ads and can further engage audiences after the last whistle blows, across, Freevee, Twitch and Fire TV.”

Amazon Prime insiders acknowledge that It will take advertisers a while to learn how to take advantage of all the opportunities and data they will be offered and how they can use it to creatively reach potential customers on other Amazon platforms, but eventually it could be a game changer for them.

“I look at this as the first true test to see if streaming partners in sports can compete with mass reach linear broadcast networks for viewers,” says one agency sports ad buyer. “We believe that live sports properties need to be shown on free broadcast TV to get its largest audience numbers. This will be a test to see how much audience a streaming service can draw to a live professional sports game.”

New Faces On Other Networks

With Al Michaels having moved over to Amazon Prime, NBC replaced him as full-time SNF play-by-play announcer with Mike Tirico, who most recently was sharing duties with Michaels. Prior to joining NBC, where he has also hosted the Olympics and other sporting events, Tirico spent 10 years as play-by-play announcer for Monday Night Football on ESPN.

In addition to turning to Tirico, NBC’s Lazarus says the network will have a new on-air look with a new logo and new in-game graphics package. Maria Taylor will be the new host of NBC’s SNF pregame show, while Matthew Berry has joined the network and will present a segment on NFL fantasy sports.

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman

With the longtime Fox NFL booth team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman leaving to perform the same role at ESPN, Fox’s new NFL number one announcing team will be Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen.

Meanwhile, the veteran CBS team of Jim Nance and Tony Romo will return.

Eyes On The Advertisers

Prior to the actual start of the season, both the networks and agencies are hesitant to divulge which specific advertisers have done deals and how much they will spend. But each of the networks say most of their big NFL game ad spenders are back from last season.

Here are the Top 15 biggest ad dollar spenders in the NFL last season, based on data provided by (expect most, if not all, to be back):

Progressive ($210.7 million); Verizon ($191.1 million); GEICO ($186.8 million); T-Mobile ($138.7 million); State Farm ($122.1 million); Toyota ($115.6 million); DirecTV Streaming ($107.7 million); USAA ($98.8 million); Apple iPhone ($86.2 million); AT&T Wireless ($83.8 million); Walmart ($83.8 million); Ford ($80 million); Hyundai ($76.8 million); Amazon ($76.3 million); and Google Pixel ($76.3 million).

As for spending on each network, the iSpot data finds that advertisers spent $1.32 billion in NFL games on CBS, $1.15 billion on NBC Sunday Night Football, $1.05 billion on Fox Sunday games, $769 million on ESPN/ABC, $681 million on Fox Thursday Night Football and $290 million on NFL Network games.

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