Sports Ad Dollars Offer Lifeline in Turbulent Time for Broadcast TV –

Caught between the lashing winds of a depressed ad market and the 100-foot rogue wave that is the Hollywood writers/actors strike, the Big Four broadcast networks have had to resort to the exceedingly rare practice of rolling back their fall ad rates. And while the cost of advertising in primetime entertainment programming has been reduced by as much as 8% versus the year-ago upfront bazaar—a period marked by healthy 10% price hikes and a $600 million increase in overall volume—sports, predictably enough, have managed to buck the downward trend. 

According to media buyers who are active in the 2023-24 upfront market, the combination of an unsettled fall broadcast slate and the ongoing erosion of commercial impressions has led to a perfect storm for advertisers looking to snap up primetime inventory on the cheap. From the networks’ perspective, that meteorological metaphor may as well be capitalized and italicized, as the freak confluence of labor strife and record-high ad avoidance are implacable enough to sink a commercial fishing vessel.

Fortunately, not every TV hand is heading down to Davy Jones’ locker alongside George Clooney and Marky Mark. In a pinch, a football makes for a handy flotation device, and the network execs with access to these life-saving prolate spheroids have managed to keep their heads above water. NBC, which wrapped its upfront sales a week ago, secured yet another round of price increases for spots in the already costly Sunday Night Football package; last year, the average cost price for a 30-second unit bought in the upfront worked out to be around $840,000 a pop, making the NFL showcase the most expensive buy in primetime.

NBC also enjoyed a lift courtesy of its new Big Ten Saturday Night feature, which bows Sept. 2 with a showdown between West Virginia and Penn State—the first meeting of the two programs since 1992. The Big Ten package, which NBC acquired last summer as part of the conference’s massive $7 billion rights coup, helped the network bring more than 40 new advertisers into the fold. 

But football isn’t the only game in town—at least not during the summer doldrums. NBC also made great headway with sales of its inventory in and around the 2024 Summer Olympics, which are slated to take place within the TV-friendly confines of Paris. Buyers say advertisers were particularly enthused by the negligible time-zone difference between France and the U.S., which should go a long way toward drawing a robust crowd. Case in point: In 2012, the equally advantageous London venue helped NBC draw its second-largest Summer Olympics audience. With an average draw of 31.1 million viewers per night, the UK event trails only the 1996 Atlanta Games in terms of overall summer impressions (33.1 million).

All told, NBC inked $100 million in advance commitments for Paris from advertisers who’d sat out the COVID-delayed proceedings in Tokyo two years ago. While the company still has another 364 days to sell out the entirety of its Olympics horde, internal projections have NBC on course to break the all-time sales record it set in Japan. Despite the logistical headaches of having to renegotiate all the ad deals it had written ahead of the postponed 2020 Tokyo Games, NBC still managed to book north of $1.25 billion in sales by the time the event officially kicked off one year later.

Fox joined NBC at the finish line late this week, closing out its upfront deals with a flurry of commitments for its NFL, Big Ten football and MLB properties. Since shifting to its sports-first model in 2017, Fox has helped disrupt the market by selling as much as 85% of its available in-game inventory during the upfront. (Before the paradigm shift—which itself was triggered by the death of “appointment TV”—broadcasters largely reserved their sports sales until after the bulk of their entertainment units had been auctioned off.)

Sports now account for approximately 77% of the time viewers spend with Fox, which worked to the network’s advantage in the run-up to a largely unscripted fall season. Last year, the NFL alone provided Fox with more than half (55%) of Fox’s total viewing time, while racking up nearly one-third of the time spent with legacy broadcasters CBS (32%) and NBC (31%). Fox also gets an autumn lift from its Big Noon Saturday platform, which last season earned bragging rights as ’s most-watched window. While NBC’s new primetime showcase will challenge Fox’s midday package for dominance, Fox’s in-season numbers get a nice boost after the deliveries for the annual Michigan-Ohio State rivalry are factored into the mix. Last year’s big game averaged 17.1 million viewers on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Just as this story was in the process of being filed, CBS announced that it, too, had wrapped its upfront deals. Although details were sketchy, buyers estimate that CBS has secured commitments for as much as three-quarters of its upcoming Super Bowl LVIII broadcast, with individual in-game units going for north of $6.5 million a throw. As has been the case since the networks first began selling the NFL title tilt in the upfront, buyers indicate that CBS’ Super Sunday sales were kickstarted by automotive and beverage brands, as well as a clutch of first-time advertisers who wanted to make certain that they wouldn’t be shut out once the market started moving.

CBS’ Thursday finish leaves ABC as the last Big Four broadcaster on the upfront board, but the salvation-via-sports theme holds true for the Disney network as well. Taken as a whole, sports pricing looks to be up between 5% and 7% over last year’s rates. As always, it’s a great time to be in the sports media business; on average, the cost of reaching 1,000 sports viewers next season will work out to around $75, while the average broadcast CPM is expected to dip to $42.