The NFL conference championship games this weekend are set to be a showcase for the league. The New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs boast the four highest-scoring offenses and loads of star power — from quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes to wunderkind Coach Sean McVay to fantasy football stars like Alvin Kamara and Tyreek Hill.
And so, after a season in which the NFL’s TV ratings have rebounded following two years of declines, Sunday’s games figure to produce big audiences for Fox and CBS.
But what exactly does a single playoff game mean to a network’s bottom line? As good as these matchups are — the Saints hosting the Rams and the Patriots visiting the Chiefs — did Fox potentially lose money when the Dallas Cowboys, the league’s top national ratings juggernaut, couldn’t pull off an upset against the Rams this past weekend? And do TV executives root as hard for Brady and Mahomes as they do, say, for a Game 7 of a baseball playoff series?
The answers are more complicated than some vague notion of a Brink’s truck backing up to CBS’s loading dock should those two quarterbacks trade touchdown passes late into Sunday evening. In fact, the NFL playoffs, according to a handful of current and former TV executives, are not when the networks do their hardest rooting.
“The networks are rooting for the marquee teams in the NFL playoff, but perhaps not as much as you might think,” said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive. “The intensity is higher in other sports.”
For starters, neither CBS nor Fox is raking in some incredible bounty of ad dollars right now for their appealing Sunday games, because the vast majority of the ads for the conference championship games — at least 80 to 90 percent of them — were sold last summer, before the season started.
Big NFL advertisers — beer companies like Anheuser-Busch and car manufacturers like Chevy — buy season-long packages, which extend through the playoffs. So the advertisers, not the networks, actually get more of an immediate boost from big audiences; their added reach comes without having to spend any extra cash. (The average going rate is around $2 million for a 30-second commercial for Sunday’s games.)
“The price doesn’t change depending on the rating,” said Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports. “If you promise a 25 rating and you deliver a 30, it’s the advertiser who gets the great value.”
The same phenomenon is in play when Tiger Woods makes a surprise run in a golf tournament and is in contention on Sunday. TV networks don’t see a bonanza that day (the advertisers do); any windfall would come in the future, but only if they can sell ads with an expectation for continued Woods success.
It’s not as if TV networks aren’t rooting for big ratings numbers in the NFL playoffs. Big audiences will help them tout total viewership numbers when they sell ads next year, and promotional spots for their own shows will reach more people.
And if a game is a particular dud that doesn’t meet the minimum viewership guaranteed by the network, the network could owe advertisers what is known as a “make-good,” which usually comes in the form of free advertising on a follow-up telecast or on other programs on the network. (Though this is highly unusual for the NFL playoffs.) But even the following year’s ad prices won’t be hugely impacted by a single highly rated game because the rates are calculated based on the previous several seasons. In other words, one Cowboys game won’t reset the market.
The NFL’s playoff format of single games also limits the variance between seasons. Last year’s ad revenue from the AFC championship game between the Patriots and the small-market Jacksonville Jaguars ($100 million) was down only 2 percent compared to a Patriots-Pittsburgh Steelers game the year before, according to the advertising intelligence company Standard Media Index.
On the flip side, there is far more risk and reward in the Major League Baseball, NHL and NBA playoffs. Networks usually sell advertising packages that assume a seven-game series will last five only games, which means when a series reaches Games 6 or 7, there is new revenue coming in that hasn’t been budgeted for.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros’ World Series went seven games in 2017, ad revenue for the series reached $134 million before tumbling around 15 percent this past fall when the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox played only five games. By percentage, that’s a far bigger dip than the difference between Jaguars-Patriots and Steelers-Patriots. A Game 7 alone could bring a network around $30 million in extra cash, executives said. The difference between a highly coveted Cowboys-Saints NFC championship game and a less sparkly Rams-Philadelphia Eagles matchup would likely have been less than $10 million, according to industry insiders
“And if you don’t get the Game 6 or 7, what are you putting on the air? Reruns,” said Kevin Collins, senior vice president for sports investment at MAGNA Global, a marketing consulting firm. “You’re never going to win the night doing that.”
The holy grail, though, is when a network can combine marquee teams with a long series. Consider the 2016 World Series when the curse-breaking Chicago Cubs battled the Cleveland Indians for seven games. The series was epic and Game 7 went to extra innings, which meant even more commercial time to fill, and it likely earned Fox and its affiliates nearly $100 million in unplanned revenue, according to industry experts.
Even if the Patriots and the Cowboys were to meet in a dream Super Bowl matchup, there wouldn’t be that kind of bounce.
“The potential upside of Games 6 and 7 of a Yankees World Series is like rocket fuel with the unplanned inventory of ads and how the series builds,” Crakes said. “With football — even with the Cowboys in the Super Bowl — there’s just fewer ads to sell and the game is already going to do well, anyway.”
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