December 10, 2023


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5 Must-See NFL Games That Are Driving the Sports-TV Upfront

Aside from opting to convert your entire salary to bitcoin or ape cartoons, there may be no financial strategy more inimical to the shelf-life of the average CMO than sitting out the NFL ad market. While even deep-pocketed brands aren’t immune to Sunday sticker shock, the cost of reaching TV’s largest pool of consumers is slightly less than trying to chase those impressions across the primetime entertainment landscape.

According to Standard Media Index pricing data, the average cost per thousand impressions (CPM) in a 2020 regular-season NFL broadcast worked out to be $75, a figure that came in slightly lower than the average primetime CPM ($77). So while marketers in that year’s upfront paid around $785,000 for each 30-second unit in NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the payoff in deliveries more than justified the expense.

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In other words, you can buy the $2,700 espresso machine from Williams Sonoma that will last the rest of your natural life, or you can go back to Target every 18 months or so to buy another $21 Mr. Coffee that will make your morning wake-up cup taste like someone melted a brown crayon in a cup of hot water. It’s nice to have options.

For those who’ve committed to going the deluxe go-go juice route, what follows is a roster of the five most indispensable matchups of the fall NFL campaign. If you’re using a talking lizard to get people to bail on their current auto-insurance policy or trying to improve your market share in the boozy-seltzer category, these games are all but guaranteed to serve up the most favorable bang-to-buck ratio.

Top 5 Projected NFL Broadcasts in 2022

1. Giants at Cowboys (Fox Thanksgiving Day window, Nov. 24) 38.7M viewers, 12.9 HH rating

Watching the Dallas Cowboys on TV after loading up on Thanksgiving dinner is an American tradition unlike any other, and the cost of tapping into the nation’s psyche mere hours before the carnage of Black Friday kicks off is predictably dear. With an average unit cost for an in-game spot coming in at around $1 million, Fox can expect to trundle away from the table with some $80 million in gross ad sales revenue.

Last year’s overtime thriller on CBS averaged 40.8 million viewers (Nielsen’s late revision of its out-of-home estimates bumped the total up from the original tally of 38.3 million), which marked the biggest TV turnout for a Thanksgiving NFL game. This time around, Fox has a rarity on its hands as the Giants will file into Jerry World for what amounts to only their fourth Turkey Day appearance of the Super Bowl era. While the Eli Manning days are but a fading memory, the inclusion of an NFC East rival that hails from the No. 1 media market makes this a can’t-miss opportunity for marketers looking to move plasma TVs and Apple gizmos the following morning.

The last time the Giants visited Dallas on Thanksgiving was in 1992, back when Coach was still averaging 23 million viewers per episode on ABC. At the time, the New York-Dallas showcase was the second most-watched holiday game on the books, as CBS averaged 33.8 million viewers. The deliveries fell off considerably in the fourth quarter, after a Troy Aikman touchdown pass drove the score to 30-3 Dallas. Exit Ray Handley.

2. Bills at Chiefs (CBS national window, Oct. 16) 26.8M viewers, 14.2 HH rating

It’s irrational to expect these two teams to top their delightfully bonkers meeting in last season’s divisional round matchup, but a whole bunch of people hoping to see lightning strike twice are going to tune in, probability be damned. To recap, the last two minutes of that Jan. 22 battle featured a 25-point scoring run and three lead changes, as Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes reenacted the Manning-Brady battles that we watched from 2001 until 2015. Not only did the game set the stage for what promises to be a classic quarterback rivalry, but it also went a long way toward helping the AFC emerge from the looming shadow cast by that other conference.

The AFC has become the hottest ticket in sports TV thanks to a stable of young arms that also includes the likes of Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Trevor Lawrence and the relatively grizzled Russell Wilson. As the networks enacted their annual courtship rituals with the NFL’s schedule mavens, the demand for AFC games was so heightened that Fox managed to land four of its top five NFC requests, missing out only on the Bucs-Cowboys draw. (NBC snared the Brady-Prescott shootout, which kicks off the regular Sunday Night Football schedule on Sept. 11.)

Kansas City last season was the NFL’s third most-watched team on the national TV stage, averaging 20 million viewers over the course of its 11 windows. CBS’ playoff broadcast scared up 42.7 million viewers and a 21.7 rating, with the audience peaking at 51.7 million during overtime. Telco, wireless and insurance brands will want to load up on this game, which coincides with the start of the 20-week period in which American consumers spend about $300 billion more than they do during the eight-month stretch between January and August.

3. Cowboys at Packers (Fox national window, Nov. 13) 26.3M viewers, 13.7 HH rating

The NFL’s two biggest draws square off for the first time since 2019, when Green Bay beat Dallas on the road 34-24 courtesy of Aaron Jones’ four touchdown runs. Fox’s broadcast averaged 24.6 million viewers, a number that reflects a significant fourth-quarter tune-out. (The Packers were up 34-17 with seven minutes left on the clock.)

This was Fox’s top ask, although the network’s brain trust had a number of alternative lists in its pocket as an insurance policy of sorts in the event Aaron Rodgers elected to take his talents elsewhere. The four-time MVP announced he’d return to Green Bay for the 2022 season on March 8.

The Cowboys and Packers appeared in eight of the 10 most-watched NFL broadcasts in 2021, and this mid-November meeting has all the hallmarks of a monster turnout. That said, even this sure thing may not out-deliver Fox’s Week 12 Rams-Chiefs game, which caps an unprecedented four-day weekend of live sports. For those keeping score at home, Fox’s broadcast schedule during the long Thanksgiving break includes the Giants-Cowboys game, the USA-England World Cup match on Black Friday, Michigan-Ohio State on Saturday, and the NFL doubleheader. Fox Sports boss Eric Shanks phoned in the request for the late-national window slot from the World Cup draw in Doha, Qatar.

4. Chiefs at Buccaneers (NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Oct. 2) 25.7M viewers, 13.4 HH rating

It was meant to be a torch-passing ceremony, but the wily old vet refused to play his assigned role. Tom Brady collected his seventh Super Bowl ring in 2021, after a night that saw him connect on 21 of 29 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Brady’s 125.8 passer rating dwarfed Patrick Mahomes’ 52.3 score; Kansas City’s QB was held without a touchdown pass for the first time since September 2019 and threw two interceptions.

This will be the sixth meeting between the G.O.A.T. and the 26-year-old, or the seventh if you count their upcoming June 1 golf outing on Turner Sports. (Note: You shouldn’t.) Brady holds a 3-2 lead in head-to-head matchups, and given the vicissitudes of the rotating NFL schedule, this may very well be the last time fans will get to take in this battle of generations. Scarcity is a TV executive’s best friend, and sooner or later, even the ageless Brady will have to hang it up and slide into the Fox broadcast booth. Miss this and you may miss out on a piece of history.

5. Buccaneers at Cowboys (NBC’s Sunday Night Football, Sept. 11) 25.3M viewers, 13.3 HH rating

Using your keyboard shortcuts, execute a find-and-replace search for all references to “Mahomes” and “Kansas City” in the paragraph above and sub in “Prescott” and “Dallas.” The Cowboys are 0-6 against Brady, because feasting on the hopes of far younger men and eating weird food is what keeps him in peak physical condition. (Tom Brady is basically just Football Dracula; only he can see himself in the mirror.) In last year’s opener, Brady threw for 379 yards and connected on four touchdown passes in a 31-29 victory. After the game, Brady groused about needing to “clean up” his act (he was picked off twice), judging the effort as “far from perfect.” Which is what makes Brady Brady and what makes this game required viewing.

While upfront rates have not been disclosed, historical precedent would suggest that advertisers looking to get in on the action should be willing to part with more than $900,000 per each 30-second increment of airtime. For those who prefer introducing unnecessary complications into their lives, feel free to spread the same amount of money across 50-to-60 units on basic cable. Buy enough inventory in shows about ghost bakeries and psychic pets and 745-pound wedding planners, and eventually you’ll manage to cobble together an equal number of impressions. We’re not here to judge.

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