The NFL Is About to Rake in Billions of Dollars Despite the Pandemic

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that pro football is king even when the crown is slightly tarnished.

The events of the past year have eaten into the NFL’s numbers somewhat, and not even the Super Bowl was immune. Nevertheless, pro football is still the hottest product on American television, and its television partners are expected to reaffirm their commitment to it in a big way.

Television partners prop up the NFL

The NFL shield logo painted at the 50-yard line
General view of NFL shield logo on the field of State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona | Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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The NFL’s current television deal with CBS, FOX, and NBC will expire in 2022. The rights to the Thursday and Monday Night packages are under separate contracts but are also being discussed. According to Peter King, the NFL is expected to renew with its television partners “within the month.” The new contract is expected to bring a 70-100% increase in rights fees into the league’s pockets.

This renewal will be important not just for the viewers at home, but for general managers and players across the NFL. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all NFL games had either limited or no in-person attendance. The lost gate receipts took out a significant portion of the teams’ revenue.

This offseason, the league’s salary cap will most likely decrease for the first time since 2011. Newer estimates place the 2021 cap between $180 million and $185 million. According to CNBC, the league wants to wrap up the new television agreement before setting the cap. For reference, last season’s cap was $198 million.

Will anything change for the NFL on television?

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On plain old television, nothing much will change. Reports indicate that the Sunday schedule will stay the same with the new television contracts. This means that CBS would keep the AFC afternoon package, while FOX will retain the NFC afternoon package. NBC will keep the sweetest prize of all — Sunday Night Football.

The one notable exception may be Thursday Night Football, which has jumped from network to network in the past decade. Since 2018, most of the Thursday night games have aired on FOX in addition to NFL Network. This could change come 2024, after FOX’s deal expires. According to multiple reports, Amazon is the “favorite” to win the exclusive rights to the package, which would make the games streaming-only.

Last season, the NFL experimented with an online-exclusive game for the first time. The week 16 game between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers aired exclusively on Amazon Prime Video and Twitch.

The NFL didn’t have a great 2020

This expected renewal shows a tremendous amount of faith from the league’s television partners given what happened last season. On average, viewership for NFL regular-season games dropped by 7%, while Super Bowl 55 suffered a 9% ratings drop from the previous year’s game.

However, the league can take solace in the fact that their competition had it much, much worse. Last season’s NBA Finals took a 50% drop in television ratings from the previous year. The 2020 World Series also set record-lows for ratings, with game one being the least-watched Series game ever. This comes despite both series featuring teams from Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest television market.

Compared to those, the NFL’s drop is barely noticeable. Besides, it was somewhat of a miracle that the NFL even finished the season in the first place, given the circumstances.