NFL Broadcasters Await Early Returns On $105-Billion Investment

Between a turbulent election season and a reality-altering pandemic, life in 2020 proved to be more disruptive than the Seattle Seahawks’ infamous “No Fly Zone” secondary. One could be forgiven if watching football slipped on the list of priorities.

But the NFL’s national broadcasting partners — a consortium of CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, and Amazon — are betting on a ratings bounce-back, having committed big bucks for another decade with the league despite a sizable viewership drop in 2020. And with a fresh season about to kick off, each network will get a first look at whether the NFL’s continued success is an easy pitch-and-catch or a hopeless Hail Mary.

Waiting All Year For Sunday Night

Regular season viewership dropped 7% last year, but broadcasters still view the league’s audience with Tom Brady-like dependability, proving it with their wallets this spring by shelling out a ridiculous $105 billion in new contracts to carry the NFL through the 2033 season.

Amazon aside, legacy broadcasters signed up at a 108% premium to the $43 billion they paid in the last round of agreements. Considering how near-and-dear each network holds the NFL, it’s easy to understand the all-out blitz for football content:

  • The NFL quadrupled the average ratings of primetime broadcast TV in 2020 — a gap that’s grown wider each of the past three years. And despite the drop in viewers, NFL broadcast ad revenue increased 2% last season to $3.7 billion, according to Standard Media Index.
  • NFL games accounted for 71 of the 100 most-watched broadcasts of 2020, and represent a disproportionate share of networks’ overall viewing times — Sunday games accounted for 52% of total viewing time spent on Fox in 2020, 20% at ESPN, 13% at CBS, and 11% at NBC.

“The first four weeks of the season will be very telling,” consultant and former Fox Sports exec Patrick Crakes told Bloomberg Thursday. “If NFL ratings are flat and everything else on TV is down 20%, that will justify the investments they made.”

An Audible To Amazon: At a price point of $1.3 billion per year, Amazon wrestled away exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football starting in the 2022 season, marking an all-digital broadcasting first for the league. Fox had previously paid roughly half that sum ($660 million) per season for the Thursday slate of games.

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