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The pandemic doesn’t discriminate by industry, but obviously some are more hard hit than others. Entertainment production, for example, has essentially ground to a halt; theaters are just now reopening and there’s a backlog of cinematic releases that should filter out again, but on the television side, there isn’t much finished inventory to work with as we enter the fall.

The NFL, though, is traditionally a huge ratings draw every year, and now it’s poised to be one of the only new offerings as well. There is obviously still uncertainty over whether the league will be able to carry out their return plan as currently constituted, but considering other sports have returned more or less successfully (and in MLB’s case, pressed on through the unsuccessful moments without stopping everything) it’s hard to bet against their being NFL games as per usual, minus a few broadcast tweaks.

So it’s probably not a surprise that in this environment, ad sales have not taken a hit, according to Sportico’s Anthony Crupi, who broke down the landscape very well in a piece worth reading in its entirety. As he notes, ad sales are pretty much level with non-pandemic year trends:

According to network execs and media buyers surveyed by Sportico, the NFL’s somewhat-delayed summertime bazaar is now effectively in lockstep with last season’s pace.

Dollar volume is steady, the average unit costs are about where they were a year ago, and the amount of inventory still available is in keeping with last fall’s levels. Depending on the package and the network, in-game sellout levels are hovering between 80% and 85%; spots that aren’t claimed before the season’s first 11-hour Sunday juggernaut gets underway on Sept. 13 will simply be reserved for scatter, ad industry argot for time sold closer to the live airdate.

Those not willing to buy in yet could end up facing a higher rate if the league’s ratings hold relative to last year, or even increase given the lack of competition. That potentiality is aided by the league’s scheduling, too:

NFL scheduling czar Howard Katz and his team have front-loaded the TV timetable with must-see matchups—NBC’s first three Sunday Night Football games feature five of the top 10 biggest draws of 2019 (Cowboys, Pats, Seahawks, Packers, Saints) and a representative of the nation’s No. 2 media market (Rams). Should the various national windows perform as expected, the cost of entry will only be that much higher.

According to Standard Media Index data, Sunday night stragglers last season paid a 21% premium for NBC’s scatter units, as the average in-game unit cost jumped from an upfront rate of $619,000 per 30-second spot to $750,000 a pop in the tighter fall market. 

There’s also another big reason why ad sales are steadier than may have been expected: the makeup of the league’s traditional advertisers. As Crupi points out, some traditional heavyweight advertisers were likely not as impacted by the pandemic, from conglomerates to streaming and tech companies:

[Procter & Gamble], which traffics in products that everyone uses—deodorant, dish soap, toilet paper—also boasts an arsenal of household cleaning brands. The company was practically designed to withstand a pandemic, a fact that isn’t lost on network ad sales bosses. TV’s perennial top spender last year dumped $781 million into broadcasters’ coffers, while placing another $933 million on ad-supported cable nets.

Buyers say that spend by the FAANG set (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) has more than offset the absence of movie studio dollars.

Even in 2020, the NFL’s appeal and stature is such that it’s easy to see why the league was determined to play games as scheduled. On the NFL’s business side, there’s a strong chance that it’s business as usual. Obviously things look a lot different if you’re a player deciding whether to risk your health for the benefit of the league.

Actually, that might be business as usual, too.


About Jay Rigdon

Jay is a writer and editor for The Comeback, and a contributor at Awful Announcing. He is not a strong swimmer.