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Football Ads: Why Controversy and Falling Ratings Aren’t Keeping Advertisers Away

November 19th, 2018   ||    by Todd Wasserman

Along with the Brady-Belichick feud and the simplified catch rule, one of the biggest topics of discussion of the 2018-2019 NFL series is ratings. While many are predicting the third straight year of ratings declines, football ads are commanding jumbo price tags. As Ad Age reported, a 30-second spot in Fox’s Thursday night games goes for $563,478. Last season, advertisers paid more than $760,000 for an average unit during Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week.”

After Nike chose to feature controversial star Colin Kaepernick in its ad campaign, observers have rekindled a debate over whether NFL players’ protests are hurting ratings.

Neither that brouhaha nor fewer viewers are causing advertisers to tune out. New ad units and opportunities to advertise on streaming platforms appear to be having the desired effect.

Boycotts and Controversy

The NFL is Exhibit A in the politicization of everything in 2018. After kneeling protests prompted many on the right to tune out last year, the NFL’s decision to penalize protesting players this year saw a boycott from the left (Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota was the best-known proponent, noted The Washington Post).

Meanwhile, Fortune reported on the NFL Hall of Famers threat to boycott the annual induction ceremony over a lack of healthcare and salaries for retired players. The boycott has brought more attention to the epidemic of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) injuries associated with the game.

It’s impossible to say how much these controversies have hurt ratings. One argument, posited by Forbes columnist Jonathan Berr, is that the tune-out was more about the poor performance of teams like the New York Jets, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, and the Chicago Bears than the protests. CTE, meanwhile, is prompting a long-term decline in the sport. “Many parents, including me, who played tackle football when they were children are refusing to let their sons and daughters participate in the sport,” Berr wrote.

Advertiser Enthusiasm Continues

So far, the prediction of falling ratings appears to be prescient. Ratings are down, but not as much as some predicted. As of early October, NFL ratings were down 2 percent on average versus 2017, according to Nielsen data cited in Variety. In the past two seasons, ratings had fallen 8-10 percent.

Meanwhile, as Ad Age reported, Verizon and Toyota eagerly claimed newly available marquee sponsorships for the pregame and halftime shows during Thursday Night Football. Fox added that slot to its NFL coverage this year.

Such sponsors tend to hold on to those spots. Toyota has been halftime sponsor for Sunday Night Football since 2006, a position it gave up this year when Hyundai swooped in to take the sponsorship, according to Ad Age.

Fox is also offering new two-minute single-sponsor ad units that may air during the two-minute warning. The Fox Sports Go streaming network also appeals to advertisers, offering spots at much lower CPMs than on broadcast.

Some brands are even thinking beyond football ads during the NFL’s new season. Pizza Hut, the official pizza sponsor of the NFL, created a special edition pizza box with an augmented reality (AR) component. Using the Beanbag Blitz mobile app, fans can unlock an AR bean bag toss game, explained MediaPost.

It seems despite winnowing audiences and controversies, advertisers are not ready to pass on the NFL opportunity anytime soon.

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