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As NFL Ratings Plummet, Networks Consider Giving Ad Space Away For Free
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 24: Members of the Indianapolis Colts stand and kneel for the national anthem prior to the start of the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

A precipitous drop in ratings for National Football League games has networks slashing ad prices and renegotiating contracts with key advertisers, The Wall Street Journal reports Sunday.

Overall, viewership for the 2020 NFL season is down around 9% from the 2019 season according to Front Office Sports, which tracks sports business news. Week-over-week, though, the damage is much worse. “The NFL averaged 14.5 million viewers in unlucky Week 13, down 29% from the same week last year,” the outlet noted on Friday.

Front Office Sports suggests that there are several factors at work, including a change in audience viewing habits during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. The league is also struggling to maintain a strict schedule with players out on sick leave; at least one game had to be played on a Tuesday night last week in order to avoid scheduling issues on Thursday, Sunday, and the following Monday.

The league’s biggest draw, the Dallas Cowboys, are also on a skid, winning just three of their last twelve games, and Thanksgiving proved to be a terrible day for football. The NFL saw a 50% decline in ratings from last Thanksgiving.

Audiences also, it seems, are somewhat fatigued on professional sports, particularly following a rash of social justice initiatives that colored events over the summer.

The WSJ reports that networks are feeling the pressure.

“TV networks are feeling the strains of disappointing NFL ratings, as they are forced to restructure deals with advertisers to make up for the smaller audience, and their opportunity to make money off remaining games during the lucrative holiday season narrows,” the outlet reported Sunday. “NBC made the unusual move of lowering the price it charged advertisers that already had committed to run in a Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers game planned for Thanksgiving night after a Covid-19 outbreak on the Ravens forced the game’s postponement to the following Wednesday.”

“Some networks also have considered letting advertisers pay less for commercials during NFL games and other programming than they originally pledged,” the WSJ noted.

Networks may even give ad space during the remaining games away for free, the outlet says, as a way of compensating for “market underperformance.”

The Super Bowl may be a lower-key event this year, as well. It’s unlikely that the game will feature a large in-person audience and, the Tampa Bay Times notes, most of the typical in-person celebrations and sponsored events are canceled, leaving advertisers struggling to find ways to capitalize on their NFL partnerships. Even official NFL events are “penciled in” and will be canceled if the coronavirus persists.

As bad as things are for the NFL, though, they’re still better for professional football than most professional sports, Front Office Sports notes.

“Even though they’re down, the NFL’s [ratings] are the envy of the industry more than ever,” Lewis said. “You’re talking about a year when the NBA Finals averaged fewer than 8 million viewers, the World Series averaged fewer than 10 million viewers — and a Wednesday afternoon NFL game gets 10.8 million? And I’m supposed to be thinking the NFL’s having a bad year?”

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