Advertising Industry Braces for an NFL Season Unlike Any Other (if It Happens)

The sports marketplace, which had been dormant since leagues shut down in March due to Covid-19, finally roared back to life over the past few weeks, as the NBA, MLB and NHL resumed play. But just as marketers were beginning to celebrate sports’ successful return, there was more upheaval last week, when two of the Power Five conferences—the Big Ten and Pac-12—elected to postpone their college football seasons until 2021.

The other conferences are still moving forward for now, but the uncertainty leaves nearly $1.7 billion in TV ad revenue hanging in the balance and intensifies concerns about whether fall’s even bigger football cash cow—the NFL—will be able to successfully pull off its season.

While marketers and TV execs had become increasingly pessimistic in recent weeks about the likelihood of college football this fall, by all accounts, they anticipate the NFL season to kick off as planned on Sept. 10 and are scrambling to shift even more ad dollars to the league.

So far, the NFL has avoided major Covid-19 outbreaks like MLB has had to weather. But, more importantly, the league built flexibility into this season’s schedule that would allow it to move the whole season back several weeks or scrap some of the earlier weeks and start later into the season if needed. 

Plus, there are simply too many dollars and eyeballs at stake to lose the NFL season, and the potential fallout of a fall without the NFL is too scary for many to contemplate. “Football commands such a huge share of the collective advertising wallet that it’s hard to imagine what happens and where it all goes if that doesn’t occur,” said Jeff Gagne, svp of strategic investments at Havas Media.

Even if the NFL season does proceed as planned—from next month’s kickoff through to Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7, 2021—it will look nothing like any that came before it, given that most teams will play without fans in the stands.

Still, the possibility of a Covid-19 surge that could shut down games at any moment requires those involved with the NFL, from brands to networks, to prepare for all possible contingencies—including the possibility of no football.

“I think they’re as prepared as they can be,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, Omnicom’s sports media and marketing division. “But with so many unknowns still right now, all we can do is plan for the best—and have contingencies for the worst.”

Adweek spoke with leaders in three key areas of the industry—TV advertising, brands and agencies—about how they are approaching this unprecedented NFL season as the pandemic rages on.

TV ad sales: more than $4 billion at stake

When it comes to TV ad revenue from professional sports, there’s the NFL, and then there’s every other league. Last season, the NFL generated an estimated $4.6 billion in national TV ad revenue, according to Kantar Media: $3.3 billion in the regular season and an additional $1.3 billion in the playoffs and Super Bowl. That’s more than double the national TV ad revenue last season from the NBA, MLB and NHL combined ($2 billion).

Several media companies whose bottom lines have been decimated during the pandemic, in large part because of the lack of live sports, are counting on the NFL to help them rebound. ViacomCBS recently reported a 27% decline in Q2 advertising revenue due to the pandemic, but president and CEO Bob Bakish told investors, “We believe Q2 is the bottom, and we expect to see continued sequential improvement in the rate of change in Q3 and again in Q4.”

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