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NFL calls shrinking ad breaks a win as it plots growth across digital

By Andrew Blustein, Reporter

August 29, 2019 | 4 min read

The National Football League (NFL), consistently a top destination for advertisers, is continuing to evolve its ad offering – and is calling on broadcasters to embrace such innovation.

The NFL readies for its 100th anniversary with Terrell Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Saquon Barkley (left to right)

The NFL readies for its 100th anniversary with Terrell Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Saquon Barkley (left to right)

In 2017, the NFL augmented its broadcasts with the double box ad format – essentially, a commercial placed side-by-side to in-game content.

Now, Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief media and business officer, said he expects to see more double boxes in this year’s games, but it’s up to broadcasters to actually sell them.

“We're really challenging our broadcast partners and our advertisers to give us more ideas,” said Rolapp. “If our broadcasters aren't comfortable, let’s use the NFL Network’s eight games to try it out. We're really open to new ideas because the landscape is changing so much.”

Rolapp added the NFL’s internal testing showed viewers “paid as much, if not more, attention” to double box commercials compared to normal ad breaks.

The NFL is also continuing to lessen the amount of ad breaks it puts on offer. Two seasons ago, the league shrunk commercial breaks from five to four per quarter. It brought that format to last season’s playoffs, and will extend the philosophy to the 2020 Super Bowl on Fox.

Beyond broadcast

Rolapp said the league, which is set to kick-off its 100th anniversary marketing campaign, is adapting to a world where consumers are watching less traditional TV than ever.

“Our entire media model is based on reach, and it's been that way for decades,” said Rolapp. "We look for media strategies that will get our games in as many households as possible, and that has traditionally meant broadcast TV, and broadcast is still very powerful.

"The issue is that now reach is more complicated because more people are spending more time on digital platforms.”

The NFL has found a testing ground in its Thursday night 'Tri-Cast', where it airs a game on a major broadcast network, the NFL Network and on Amazon Prime Video. Rolapp said about 6% of viewership currently comes through Amazon’s platform.

He added the league has seen simultaneous viewing on digital platforms increase year-on-year, but the NFL has yet to migrate games entirely onto digital because it has yet to find a service with the technical ability to handle the capacity.

“The internet needs to deliver a high-quality stream for 25 million people at the same time, and nothing's been done like that before,” said Rolapp. “We haven't seen that yet.”

An average regular season NFL game earns around 16 million viewers, but that can spike to 30 million during the league’s tentpole Thanksgiving Day games. Last year’s Super Bowl brought 98.6 million viewers – an 11year low for the game.

The NFL also owns a library of content it distributes through the NFL Network. The league recently partnered with ad-supported streaming service Pluto TV to launch the NFL Channel, which will feature its catalog of content.

Rolapp said partnering with digital distributors – be it streaming services or platforms such as Twitter and Instagram – is an important way to extend the league’s presence beyond the season.

“Creating content and distributing that content to engage a fan every day of the year… has really been a huge growth in our business,” said Rolapp. “We measure our business very simply: is consumption going up and is the financial pie growing?

"That's more than just games; it's everything we do. If you look at how people are engaging in NFL football now versus 10 years ago, they're clearly consuming more than they have before.”

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