As the NFL Lockout looms, I’ve tried to imagine what the Fall and Winter may be like without professional football. What will I wear on Fridays, when I would normally don my purple Ray Rice Ravens jersey? What will I do to occupy my time on Sunday afternoons? What will I hum on Monday nights, when I’d normally hear the MNF theme as a prelude to kick-off? And what about the Super Bowl…no halftime show? No Budweiser or E-Trade ads with that cute little baby? This Lockout will seriously affect my television viewing habits!
Prognosticators are estimating huge losses if the Lockout keeps players off the field this year. Retail stores are already bracing for a decrease in sales of NFL sports paraphernalia. Restaurants and bars around the country are facing huge decreases in food and beverage sales on Sundays and Mondays. Tourism in NFL cities is going to take a hit and the economy in local markets will also feel the pinch. Stadium employees will be looking for jobs elsewhere. Fantasy Football leagues will be canceled and Fantasy Football web sites will become irrelevant. In the US, Las Vegas sports books may lose as much as $850M, while online betting and betting in other countries could bring that total to $500B in lost revenue.
Who’s the biggest loser, aside from the fans? Possibly the media. According to Wells Fargo, CBS generates $825M per year in ad revenue with their AFC divisional games, while Fox makes approximately $975M per year with their NFC games and NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcasts yield about $850M per year. Disney’s ESPN makes about $175M each year with Monday Night Football telecasts, and with so much 4th quarter NFL-centric programming, from pre-game to SportsCenter viewing, ESPN may suffer the most. Other lead-in and lead-out programming may be affected as well, since most viewers tune in early and watch later when NFL games are on TV. These networks also promote other programming during NFL games, and without that built-in promotional vehicle, ratings in other dayparts may decrease.
As media outlets across the country attempt to sell NFL packages to advertisers this year, those of us in the media industry are left wondering how we will replace dollars and points if the Lockout does, in fact, continue and games are canceled. No other sports franchise delivers the mass audience of the NFL. In five seasons on ESPN, Monday Night Football delivered eight of the top ten household audiences in Cable TV history. Advertisers know that most NFL viewers watch games in real-time, without DVR’s, making NFL games optimal advertising venues. Most prime programming doesn’t even come close in terms of ratings, viewers and engagement.
Without the NFL’s programming, advertisers will be faced with a classic supply and demand challenge. Few alternatives can achieve the same marketing and advertising results, forcing advertisers to scramble to reach their audience through other sports vehicles, such as college football, MLB playoffs, NHL and NBA games (assuming the NBA won’t have a labor stoppage). Dollars normally allocated for top-dollar playoff and Super Bowl games will have to be re-allocated. Sponsors will also have to spend money elsewhere. Bud Light may need to find another home for the $1.2B they allocated over six years to be the NFL’s official beer sponsor.
Everyone seems to lose if the NFL and the NFLPA don’t come to some sort of agreement. As a media buyer and planner, I’m wondering if the MNF packages we’re reviewing are actually going to run. And, as a fan, I’m bracing for a Fall and Winter of NFL withdrawal.