The NBA, NHL, and, to a lesser extent, Major League Baseball emerged from lockdown to quench the thirst of pandemic-starved sports-loving shut-ins. To the delight of sports fans and the TV networks that feed them, basketball and hockey began their restarts with a small slate of regular-season games in empty stadiums before diving headfirst into the playoffs. Baseball issued a watered-down version of its regular season with some fits and starts related to a handful of teams whose players broke a tight COVID-19 quarantine.
With major networks chomping at the bit, the National Football League took to the stage on Sept. 10, amidst the double whammy of the pandemic and the threat of NFL boycotts. Fox, NBC, CBS, and ESPN moved full steam ahead with mixed rating results. Nonetheless, the major networks and new competitors, such as Amazon and Google, are poised to pay even more for future football broadcast rights when their contracts with the league expire.
Money is no object for NFL broadcast rights
Most of the broadcast contracts between the major networks and the NFL expire after the 2021 season. The deal between ESPN and the league ends after the current season, and it’s likely the existing price tag of $1.9 billion per year will go up.
For the Sept. 21 game between the Las Vegas Raiders and the New Orleans Saints, Disney, which owns ESPN and ABC, experimented with a simulcast on the two networks with great results. Some 15.4 million viewers tuned in, according to The Hollywood Reporter. That made it the second-largest Monday Night Football audience in the past year. It also indicates that Disney intends to gain some additional NFL rights on ABC (which outperformed ESPN in the simulcast).
The news offered a big sigh of relief to Disney/ESPN/ABC given its opening night Monday Night Football ratings were disappointing the week before.
Amid NFL boycott talk, Fox could spend $2 billion for broadcast rights
The pressure is on Fox as they have the rights to NFC games for which they pay $1.08 billion per year. Add in its rights for Thursday Night Football, and the total tops $2 billion for each season through 2021. NFL boycotts and the COVID-19 pandemic cloud the immediate future of the game, but Fox has indicated it might be willing to top $2 billion per year for future NFC Sunday rights, according to Bloomberg.
“The NFL has asked, I think, all the broadcasters to think about every package, and to think how would we monetize packages that we currently have or other packages differently,” Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch told investors (per Bloomberg). “So, we’re looking at all sorts of options.”
The broadcast money is especially crucial to the sustainability of the NFL as the majority of the teams are now playing in front of empty stadiums. According to Fitch Ratings, each team gets a $250 million share of broadcast revenue, which helps compensate for the estimated $130 million lost in fan-generated money in parking and concessions that come with in-person attendance.
The role of an NFL boycott and the pandemic
With a nation on edge from issues related to police brutality and racism, the NFL has been the center of a firestorm. Marcus Gilbert of the Cardinals, Geronimo Allison of the Lions, and Lerentee McCray of the Jaguars opted to sit out the year because of health concerns before the season started. Of far greater concern to the league and fans are NFL boycott protestations, which include kneeling during the national anthem or teams remaining in the locker room during the anthem.
The NFL boycott has created a division among fans, players, owners, and the executive branch of the government. All sides are at loggerheads with neither seemingly willing to compromise.
“I’m not concerned because I’m supportive of everything that’s involved in terms of trying to create attention and change, and have always been that way,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said, according to USA Today. And if we have to sacrifice, we have to sacrifice.”
Attempting to thread the needle, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has tried to separate his feelings from that of his players who are outspoken about their stance on supporting a push for the NFL to actively support racial equality.Fans have expressed their anger and support in varying measure over the players’ actions in their protests. Despite the number of fans who take to social media and claim they will ignore the current season as their form of protest, a survey showed that more than 88% of fans would continue watching the games no matter what.