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Advertisers Flock to N.F.L. Broadcasts as a ‘Safe Haven’

The N.F.L. season kickoff is giving the advertising industry reason to rejoice after months of disruption related to the pandemic and civil unrest.

Media companies and marketing executives are looking forward to a boost in TV ratings amid uncertainty in other professional and college sports leagues over how their seasons will proceed. NBC said it sold out of ad space for the season-opening game on Thursday night, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, with revenue up substantially from last year and an average 30-second commercial costing nearly $900,000.

Football tends to be far more attractive to advertisers than basketball, baseball and hockey combined, according to the research firm Kantar. The 2019 football regular season, playoffs and Super Bowl generated an estimated $4.3 billion in ad revenue for CBS, Fox and NBC, with nearly $200 million coming in the first week.

With broadcast rights contracts expiring starting next year, analysts from the research firm MoffettNathanson predicted in an investor note on Thursday that the league would be able to command “gigantic increases for the upcoming cycle of new N.F.L. contracts,” with some networks paying up to 75 percent more for their packages. Current media partners “all seemingly are eager to extend their current relationships,” the analysts wrote, estimating that the total annual N.F.L. price tag will rise to $8.82 billion from $5.62 billion.

ESPN, which suffered an advertising slump in its most recent quarter because of a dearth of N.B.A. and other sports programming, celebrated the N.F.L.’s return with a commercial set to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” Other new N.F.L.-theme commercials include a Progressive spot featuring Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, a Subway ad poking fun at New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s unemotional personality and a Lowe’s ad inspired by the Carolina Panthers’ home stadium.

Frito-Lay tapped the “Friday Night Lights” director Peter Berg to helm a commercial called “’Twas the Night Before Kickoff,” featuring appearances by Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and other football luminaries. The spot was filmed in California, Florida and Texas with 90 percent of the crew working remotely.

“This year, the return of the N.F.L. matters more than ever,” Rachel Ferdinando, the company’s chief marketing officer, said in a statement.

With the Big Ten and Pac-12 college football leagues postponing their seasons, and a shortage of new scripted entertainment, many clients have shifted ad spending to the N.F.L., media buyers said.

Tom McGovern, president of the sports marketing agency Optimum Sports, said that companies saw the N.F.L. as a “safe haven” and a “beacon of hope.” After ad spending slumped in the pandemic, football will capture “a greater share of a smaller pie,” he said.

“We are directing clients to the N.F.L. as a very viable place to spend dollars for people who need to reach mass audiences,” he said. “The N.F.L. is the first sport that is returning in its comfort zone — in its regular time frame in its regular season.”

In addition to commercials, some companies are trying to reach customers through digital experiences designed to make viewers feel closer to the game. With stadiums sitting largely unoccupied, Bud Light worked out a deal with the N.F.L. and Twitter that gives fans a chance to interact with players during matches through its so-called Showtime Cam.

While health restrictions are forcing many brands to divert funds from in-person events, marketing executives are finding that switching to virtual versions allows them to include more people than would physically fit on a field and offers better access to fans’ data.

“If we brought this proposition to the N.F.L. during a normal season, I don’t know that there would be the same level of partnership or willingness to try it,” said Nick Kelly, a vice president at Anheuser-Busch InBev, Bud Light’s parent company. “But in the future, all the broadcasters are going to try to monetize this sort of thing.”

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