Super Bowl LIV: More Ball, Less Breaks

Conor O'Malley  | 

The Super Bowl is more than just a battle for the pigskin. Hundreds of millions of dollars change hands every year during this epic pop culture event, where wardrobe malfunctions titillate, halftime shows inspire or spark ire and football fans come away shaken or elated. The broadcast continues to attract a larger audience than any other single live televised event in the U.S., thus providing tremendous reach for those brands willing to participate in the high-end spending game.

Advertising costs are experiencing a meteoric rise. Starting rates for a spot at this year’s LIV game average close to $5.1 million, with higher prices paid for better placement during the broadcast—think the first half of play, when more viewers are expected to tune in. That’s over double the $2.2 million per ad fee of 2001.

But here’s where the numbers don’t shake out. While advertisers continue upping their antes, Super Bowl viewership on linear TV is on the decline. Nielsen reported that 2019’s Big Game lured 98.2 million live TV spectators, down from 111.3 million in 2017 and the lowest turnout since 2008, when an audience of only 97.5 million watched. The New York Times reported that some disappointed fans in 2019 complained about everything from “snoozefest” football to a “forgettable” halftime show to—kiss of death—“tame” commercials. Streaming, meanwhile, is a different story—some argue those numbers were the only super thing about last year’s Super Bowl. A staggering 2.2 million viewers watched on their devices via platforms like NFL.com, YouTube TV or the CBS Sports app (as CBS was last year’s host). That marked a 31 percent streaming increase from the previous year, but still doesn’t solve the problem of how to attract a greater linear TV audience. So this year, Fox concocted a new plan.

Fox Says Fewer Commercial Breaks
Three network giants—CBS, NBC, Fox—rotate rights to air the Super Bowl each year, with 2020 marking the latter’s ninth turn since 1997. Eager to keep viewers riveted, Fox execs revamped the program format to cut out one commercial per quarter during next month’s broadcast. The total number of ads won’t change—media moguls might not stand for that. But instead of five ad breaks, there will now be four, and each one will be slightly longer to accommodate all spots. The reasoning behind this reinvention circles back to basic NFL logic: fewer game-time interruptions equal less likelihood of antsy spectators switching channels or getting distracted by social media sites.

This isn’t a new concept. For years, the NFL has struggled to pick up the pace and combat fan fatigue inherent in a sport built on video replays, countless sideline huddles and seemingly endless timeouts. Attention spans are getting shorter, which means content must follow suit, and pro football is experimenting with everything from fewer pauses and replays to shortening the commercial “pods” that critics claim kill the natural game flow.

A Winning Strategy
Of course, all change is accompanied by risk. One potential hiccup for media groups is that this shift might result in higher advertising costs. Companies often shell out a premium to have their ad air early in a game, or be first or last during a Super Bowl commercial block. The snag? There will be fewer such coveted spots this year. Still, Fox isn’t feeling the pain—in fact, execs are likely popping the champagne. Their gamble seems to have paid off, if early numbers are any indication. The cable channel sold out all available Super Bowl ads by last November, months ahead of the eagerly anticipated TV event. This marks the first time in seven years that all 77 spots got snapped up sooner than expected and at record-breaking prices. (In comparison, last year CBS didn’t hit their commercial sales target until February 1, just two days before the 2019 airdate.) Certainly, a thriving economy deserves some credit. But many analysts agree the nixing of one advert per quarter infused a renewed sense of urgency among advertisers, all eager to invest early and thus secure their prime airtime slot. Game on!

Conor O'Malley

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