When live sports disappeared before our eyes in mid-March, many of us in the industry saw the pandemic in a dramatically new way. The virus became real. Aside from wondering how it would affect us and our families, there was real worry as to what advertisers and broadcasters would do in the absence of sports.
To date, the NFL—which is the biggest cash cow in all of sports—has yet to be fully hit by the virus, beyond canceled summer workouts and closed team headquarters. But according to experts, football has the highest possible risk factors for COVID-19 transmission. NFL players, by nature of the game, are in constant physical contact. This makes the future seem uncertain.
What No NFL Season Means for the TV Landscape
The NFL is the No. 1 sport in the world in revenue and total viewers, so a great deal is at stake commercially. The disappearance of this multibillion-dollar behemoth could be cataclysmic for the TV landscape.
Consider these viewership and revenue numbers:
- NFL games finished with 47 of the top 50 telecasts during the regular season last year, per CNBC.
- The NFL increased its viewership to an average of 16.5 million per game, up from 15.8 million in 2018.
- All TV partners (ESPN, FOX, NBC and CBS) saw increases in viewership last year.
- NBC’s “Sunday Night Football’’ remained the most-watched prime-time program on television for a ninth straight year, averaging 20.5 million viewers, up 5% from 2018. That extends its record for the most consecutive years ranked as the No. 1 program in prime time dating back to 1950, per Boston.com.
- The NFL generated $8.78 billion in revenue for its 32 teams last year and a total of almost $16 billion in total revenue, according to USA Today.
Although all signs are pointing to the NFL’s return, a surge of cases in the fall could derail that. How the NBA and NHL execute their comebacks later this summer may also be a factor in how and when the NFL returns. If the virus is seen to spread through other high-contact sports, the NFL’s fate could become more uncertain.
For broadcasters and distributors, planning ahead for the potential of no NFL is wise, albeit anxiety-inducing. Given reports in mid-June that several members of the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans tested positive for the virus (including star running back Ezekiel Elliott), we need to at least be prepared for the possibility.
3 Ways to Prepare for a Canceled NFL Season
There’s no one thing that replaces the NFL. Nothing. Instead, sellers will need to increase their rate structure across the board to make up for some of the lost revenue if the season is canceled. Here are three things that can be done to prepare for and mitigate the loss of professional football if it comes to that:
- Make a limited volume of audience-adjacent packaging available: This entails identifying the audience groupings most frequently sold in NFL games and building pre-set packages with similar audience makeups to proactively deliver to football advertisers. Sellers should intentionally limit the available packages to create scarcity and a sense of urgency—for buyers and their internal sales teams alike.
- Convergence, convergence, convergence: There is no time like the present to guide advertisers away from buying on a point or spot basis and toward audience-based buying. If the NFL doesn’t return, the only way to effectively manage the loss will be to lean into addressable and digital to increase audience efficiency in lieu of frequency.
- Rebalance your entire rate card if the season is canceled: If the NFL season is canceled—or severely curtailed—this season, TV sellers will need to adjust their rate cards to make up for the loss as much as possible. This means tracking where that massive audience goes and raising rates for programming that sees an uptick in viewers accordingly. This may seem obvious, but a flexible, data-driven approach is essential to ensure that revenue opportunities aren’t missed as a result of legacy pricing.
With the potential of no NFL games this year, advertisers and content providers will need to explore new techniques and opportunities to minimize the fallout. Having an innovative approach to pricing and packaging can lessen the bottom-line impact. Of course, everyone’s Plan A is for football to return—and for Tom Brady to have a chance to win a Super Bowl outside of New England (or not).