With College Football Diluted and Broadcast Shows Delayed, TV’s Fall Season Rides on the NFL

Pro football remains the hottest ticket for advertisers, who spent $5 billion on NFL games last year

Professional football has long been considered one of the last remaining pillars holding up the legacy television model. In 2020, the league will have to play the part of Atlas.

College football is missing half of its schools, including Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon. Broadcast TV is starting its 2020-21 season with more acquired programming and non-scripted fare than usual as it waits for its primetime series to get back behind the camera. The NFL, which kicks off its 2020 campaign on Thursday night, will have to navigate through a still-raging pandemic as the calendar shifts to fall and winter, around the time many health experts fear the country could see a resurgence of the COVID-19 disease.

No pressure, guys.

“We feel like we have a solid plan to start the season but know full well that we’ll be adapting and adjusting as the season goes on,” Fred Gaudelli, NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” producer, said last week during a conference call with reporters.

The NFL remains the hottest ticket for advertisers, spending around $5 billion on NFL games last season, including more than $400 million on Super Bowl LIV alone back in February, according to ad-tracking firm Kantar. While the NFL’s dominance is apparent every year, it will be more obvious in 2020. “Sunday Night Football” has been the most-watched primetime series for the last nine years.

The broadcast networks are resorting to acquired programming, either from abroad or streaming services, to fill out the first few months of the fall TV season. Fox had two series, “neXt” and “Filthy Rich,” that were held back from last season to help plug in fall schedule holes. November is the earliest any of the networks expect to have their normal primetime fare back on the air. ABC will have a bump in the form of a fall NBA Finals, which along with the World Series, will give the NFL a much more competitive October than its used to.

Despite an upfront sales period that has moved much slower than normal, ad sales commitments for NFL is right on schedule, or in the case of NBC, a little bit ahead of last year. (Update at 11 a.m. PT: NBC was up double-digits for Thursday’s kick-off game compared to 2019, with spots selling for an average of nearly $900,000.) During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, CBS sports chief Sean McManus said the network was on pace with where it was at this point last year. Fox is also pacing ahead of compared to this time a year ago, an individual familiar with the network’s sales told TheWrap. ESPN did not divulge its ad sales by presstime.

“I think the entire marketplace written about was stymied for a bit of time, the upfront moved later than it has historically, and so some of our NFL moved later as well. But when it moved, it moved very fast,” Dan Lovinger, NBC’s ad sales chief, told TheWrap. “The trigger for that really was some of the college football announcements when things were announced that conferences were going either not play or play shortened seasons. That’s when people really said, ‘Okay, I better get my NFL taken care of.'”

The NFL is coming off a strong ratings season. It’s second in a row following a few years of viewership declines. “Thursday Night Football” has grown its audience in each of its first two years on Fox, while “Monday Night Football” and “Sunday Night Football” both had their best seasons since 2015. Fox and CBS’ Sunday afternoon coverage was both networks’ best in four years. The Super Bowl, while still down from its high-water mark five years ago, reversed four straight years of ratings declines.

This season also figures to be a redux of 2016, when Colin Kaepernick started a league-wide movement when he knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against minorities and systemic racism. In the wake of summer of (and in some cases, still ongoing) protests after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the league underwent an about-face on those protests, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell very much encouraging them.

When NFL ratings were declining in 2016 and 2017, many on the conservative side pointed to politics infiltrating their beloved football as a reason fewer viewers were tuning in. While that theory was never proven, it was a narrative that threatened to harm the NFL’s stance as the country’s most-popular sport. In 2020, networks will again have to strike a balance at a time when sports and the real world have never been more intertwined.

“We need to thread the needle just the right way, because there are people who are tuning in just to hear about football,” McManus said. “So we need to make sure that we don’t overdo the emphasis on what’s going on in our country, but we’re not gonna ignore it.”

The season will start Thursday night when the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans in front of purposely-sparse crowd at Arrowhead Stadium, which will be capped around 20% capacity.

“My role is going to be hugely different in that I’m not allowed on the field,” Michelle Tafoya, the team’s sideline reporter, said of her revamped role this season. “I’ll be working from an area that’s called The Moat, basically the first row into the stands, and that’s going to provide a lot of challenges.”

For most of the games, including the “SNF” opener in Los Angeles, when the Rams unveil the brand new SoFi Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys in front of a sea of empty seats. Ditto for the Raiders’ debut in Las Vegas on Sept. 21, where Allegiant Stadium will have no fans for the duration of team’s inaugural season in Sin City.

The NFL has worked with its other 30 stadiums to create a “soundtrack” that is unique to each stadium, pulled from four years of archives.

“They created a sound loop that’s authentic to each stadium. And they’ve hired an audio engineer in each city to basically score the game that is going on,” Gaudelli explained. “I think it will be as authentic as you possibly can be.”

Unlike other professional sports, the NFL had the one thing the NBA, NHL and MLB didn’t: time. Both the NBA and NHL had to pause their seasons for months while the leagues scrambled to figure out a way to finish and crown a champion (both opted for the “bubble” format which restricts players to one location — two in the NHL’s case). Major League Baseball went to a regionally based schedule but was forced to chop off the first two-thirds of its season, leading to a 60-game sprint.

The NFL will be the first to operate under (mostly) normal conditions, with teams playing their normal, 16-game schedule with an expanded playoffs as a bonus for fans in January. But while the number of infections has been declining since its summer peak in July — though some midwestern states are seeing rises again — the NFL will be playing its season in November and December, when the weather cools for most of the country. That has led many health experts to worry about a new wave of infections as most people spend more time inside.

Lovinger said said they have a playbook if the COVID-19 ends up wiping out part of the season. It’s one NBC has already had to use.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been through this once already, with the first spike of the pandemic, where we had golf, hockey, horse racing, and a few other Sports, English Premier League, all postponed and in some cases, canceled,” he said. “We have made it clear to advertisers that if an event is canceled, they have every right to take their money back. If an event is postponed, as we saw, for instance, with golf, with hockey, and Premier League, we suggested to them that they just pause their money. And when the seasons come back, we would discuss best options then to them… almost all of them come back. So we’re going to treat people the same way moving forward.”

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays



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