Despite declining TV ratings and the ongoing protest controversy, the NFL ad market is as strong as ever this season.
For much of the past decade, the NFL TV ad market was a bit like the housing bubble of the aughts. Each year, those companies with football rights could count on hefty double-digit increases in returns each year, while using the NFL ’s robust ratings increases each year to leverage their network’s weaker performing sports at the time, like baseball. “While your subconscious will tell you this can’t last forever, many of those who enjoyed the benefits of that housing craze and were flipping homes and taking profits never thought the party was going to end,” says Mark Evans, svp of advertising sales for Fox Sports. “So when the ratings did plateau and then decline somewhat over the last year and a half, everybody in town was like, wait a minute, this isn’t supposed to happen!”
While NFL TV advertising has never cratered like the real estate market did, it was hit with plenty of upheaval last season. The second straight year of ratings declines (regular season NFL games averaged 14.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen’s liveplus-same-day ratings, a 10 percent drop from 2016’s 16.5 million audience) came hand in hand with the growing controversy over player protests during the national anthem, stoked by President Trump himself. Midseason, some anxious advertisers even threatened to pull their NFL ads if in-game protest coverage continued—though none actually followed through. The ratings drops resulted in a higher number of make goods, which ate into inventory and led to the unthinkable: a year-over-year decline in TV NFL ad revenue for NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN, from $2.45 billion during the 2016-17 regular season to $2.42 billion last year, according to Standard Media Index. Including the playoffs and Super Bowl, ad revenue fell 3.9 percent year over year, dropping from $3.56 billion to $3.42 billion.
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