Within the top-10 highest rated television programs of all-time are four National Football League (NFL) broadcasts. Each game on the list is an iteration of the monolith of American fascination with football, consumerism, and patriotism: the Super Bowl. It’s no mystery that the Super Bowl holds the American audience captive whenever February (and formerly January) comes knocking each year. And there’s nary a soul around a Super Bowl watch party who forgets to bring up the most captivating of all Super Bowl elements: the commercials.
Each year, with glee, the most thorough and sincere analysis at any Super Bowl gathering will be about the commercials. “How much do you think that one cost?” “I heard it’s $500,000 for 30 seconds.” “Back to back ads? Ford has lost it!” The reason for the expense is simple: the Super Bowl is a direct pipeline into hundreds of millions of American households, and with a limited amount of alloted airtime, the cost for time is incredible. For the 2019 Super Bowl, CBS sold airtime to the tune of $5.1 million per 30 second slot, up almost $200,000 in just one year.
That is important to process and detest, but it’s far more imperative to understand that these numbers don’t appear out of thin air; they’re informed by the rest of the season.
In the world of broadcasting, cable networks own airtime that they can sell advertisements on. But in order to get advertisers to buy airtime for a network, the networks need good content that people will pay to see. This is the reason that NFL broadcasting rights are some of the most lucrative available; America’s football problem is a cash cow.
This is the reason that NFL broadcasting rights are some of the most lucrative available; America’s football problem is a cash cow.
For the time period of 2014-22, the NFL will be paid $39.6 billion for the right to broadcast games on terrestrial television and over satellite. Billion, with a B. The average cost for 30 seconds of commercial time on the primetime games will range from $549,791 for Thursday Night Football (on CBS) to $699,602 for Sunday Night Football (on NBC) and only continue to rise as viewership returns and grows for the sport. And these totals are only of the games themselves — they exclude the pre-game, post-game, mid-week, and daily coverages that these sports will generate. And with each show, channel, or bit of cutting analysis created comes more time for advertising and the corresponding revenue.
Now, dear reader, you might recall that the NFL has gone through several public relations blunders in the past several years — most notably, their inability to discipline and discuss domestic violence and their relations with the current presidential administration. And that this might have interfered with the money-making ability of the NFL, with people staying away from the sport because of the negative press.
Reader, it did not. The NFL continued its streak of record–breaking revenue years. The television contract that was signed from 2014-22 occurred during the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal and continued during the Colin Kaepernick saga. People still tuned in to one of the last bastions of appointment viewing, and the networks continued broadcasting games because the money kept coming in.
Networks are constantly worried about what content they can secure for the sake of advertising revenue. But they should be similarly concerned with the message they broadcast between their ad breaks. If there is to be a culture change within sports, and specifically within the NFL, there must be decision to say what players, coaches, and owners do off the field are just as important as on the field. And the networks could make that decision, but they’re too afraid to pull the plug.