For TV networks missing sports, there’s one unthinkable scenario: Losing the NFL seasonJuly 5, 2020
Throughout the spring and into the summer – without the NBA playoffs and baseball’s opening weeks – the sports world has continued to feel the steady drumbeat of the NFL. The league opened free agency as usual, providing news-making moments such as Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then its April draft went off without a hitch, delivering boffo ratings for ESPN.
For the TV networks and sports media outlets that cover the league, this has been most welcome. But as the calendar flips to July, with NFL training camps set to open at the end of the month, doubts have surfaced about the viability of football season. Coronavirus cases are spiking in states across the country. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said football players may need to be in a bubble environment for the season to be played. Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay wondered aloud how teams will be able to both play and take precautions.
“I mean, we’re going to social distance, but we play football,” McVay said during a recent media appearance. “It’s really hard for me to understand all this.”
While there remains plenty of optimism the NFL will play – somehow, some way – networks are now fixated on the league’s fall schedule, given its dominant position as America’s most valuable television property. They are invested, of course, in the planned returns of Major League Baseball, the NBA and other sports, but none carries the importance of the NFL, which accounted for 41 of the top 50 rated telecasts of any kind in 2019. The lack of certainty has led to uncomfortable conversations among executives.
“It’s practically the only thing on the minds of the networks,” said John Kosner, a former ESPN executive who is now an industry consultant. “If you lost an NFL season, you’re looking at a financial hemorrhage.”
All four networks that broadcast the NFL – CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC – declined to comment on contingency plans or how they are thinking about the 2020 season. But a senior ESPN employee recently lamented that there is no fall-back plan even worth considering if the NFL cannot play, because nothing can replace the content or revenue that comes with it, according to a person with knowledge of the discussion. At Fox Sports, at least one executive has told an employee that no NFL season would mean trouble for the network, according to multiple people familiar with the discussion.
No network is more dependent on the NFL than Fox, which pays more than $1.5 billion each year for two NFL packages: one on Sunday afternoon and the other on Thursday night. The NFL, including pre- and postgame coverage, accounted for nearly 40 % of the minutes spent viewing the network last year, according to research firm MoffettNathanson.
For the league’s other broadcast partners, the NFL’s share of minutes viewed was smaller but still a hefty 10% to 13%…