The NFL has been hellbent on staying on schedule amid the pandemic. Now we know why

In October, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a saber-rattling memo to teams about the repercussions for violating pandemic protocols, the sharpest edge of his message rested on one passage. If you were a team owner, general manager or head coach, the redline for a COVID-19 outbreak inside your franchise was made crystal clear.

“Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline, including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game,” Goodell wrote.

The message couldn’t have been more resounding if Goodell had affixed a set of fiery eyeballs beneath the words “requiring adjustments to the schedule.” To teams on the receiving end of his memo, the implication was blunt: Don’t violate the COVID protocols … and if you do, hell hath no fury like a commissioner forced to reschedule games.

The threatening nature of the letter was enhanced in seriousness by the eyebrow-raising bazooka that accompanied it. Fines were one thing. But stripped draft choices and forfeitures? Was this necessary, given that the NFL had designed breathing room to delay the season if necessary? Why was Goodell wielding this threatening sledgehammer so early in the season?

Well, now we have the answer.

We learned the lesson through a ratings debacle created by the Baltimore Ravens, whose rampant COVID outbreak took a robust Thanksgiving Day advertising platform for NBC and pushed it into a clunky early afternoon Wednesday time slot six days later. The result? A ratings hit of nearly 50 percent when compared to the network’s Thanksgiving Day game from one year earlier — not to mention a longtime television partner that was likely less-than-enthused about the fiasco.

As ever, the NFL is focused on TV viewership and advertising above all else. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
As ever, the NFL is focused on TV viewership and advertising above all else. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

For the networks, league office and NFL teams that are trying to run on time in the middle of the pandemic, this failure was part of the bargain that everyone had agreed to accept. But even with other professional sports audiences hemorrhaging viewers during their grand finales — including a 49 percent ratings dip for the NBA Finals and the 61 percent decline for the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final — the NFL would try to be the saving grace that advertisers could count upon. If there was one league that would bend over backward to provide networks much-needed consistency to sell to their advertisers, it was going to be the NFL. And Goodell showcased how serious that effort would be in his October memo, which sent an unambiguous message to franchises that maintaining game dates and time slots would be of paramount importance.

The only problem? Even the NFL hasn’t been a foolproof advertising bet inside the pandemic, with ratings that were down 7 percent overall between the league’s cable and digital partners heading into Week 14. That’s not exactly a panic-button decline, considering the league has been operating at the intersection of a hot presidential election season and an even hotter resurgence of COVID-19.

But what’s important to the NFL is that the ratings reverberations have led to some bloody noses incurred by the networks when it has come to their advertising sales. So much so that the Wall Street Journal reported that some of the networks have had to consider discounts on advertising during NFL games, a trend that is alarming because it has never happened on the scale that 2020 has delivered.

According to the Journal’s report, the NFL’s television partners have been forced to restructure some of their deals with advertisers to soothe the pain of smaller audiences than were promised this season. That has included some free advertising spots as a give-back measure, which has in turn limited the amount of available spots that can be sold into the home stretch of the season.

Per the Journal:

“NBC made the unusual move of lowering the price it charged advertisers that already had committed to run in a Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers game planned for Thanksgiving night after a Covid-19 outbreak on the Ravens forced the game’s postponement to the following Wednesday. Some networks also have considered letting advertisers pay less for commercials during NFL games and other programming than they originally pledged. Meanwhile, a large amount of the remaining commercial time available in games is being given to marketers as compensation for the underperformance so far, leaving little ad time that can be sold in the final quarter of the season. Such so-called make-good commercials are given if a network underdelivers on the audience it promised an advertiser.”

That is a massively troubling reality for networks that generate billions in annual television advertising revenues tied to the NFL. It’s those same networks who bid for the gargantuan rights deals for NFL games — which the league has used to dominate the American sports landscape in popularity and profits.

Given that the NFL is still grappling with retaining its current audience and growing it into the next decade of fragmenting entertainment consumption, it’s a big deal when a pandemic plays a part in disrupting the advertising dollars for the TV networks. And it’s an even bigger deal when it happens in the midst of the NFL trying to get its next spate of massive television rights deals done.

If that doesn’t provide some context on why the NFL has been so hot about shuffling its television schedule this season — not to mention a basic refusal to postpone games into January and extend the season — then nothing does.

The bottom line that we’re learning: Swapping around games that weren’t designed to be flexed to other dates and times is bad for business. It disrupts one of the best things the NFL has sold over the past few decades: consistency in product and schedule. Very little has been more beneficial to the league’s bottom line than being able to guarantee record audiences to the television providers, and promising that those record audiences will tune in precisely when they are supposed to.

That kind of brand consistency has made the NFL an ironclad bet for the TV networks in the past two decades. But even a bulletproof two decades can’t override one year when seemingly nothing is pandemic proof. The league has learned that. The networks are learning that. And when the Super Bowl comes in February, it will be the ultimate litmus test of exactly how far ahead the NFL is when it comes to retaining an audience on its biggest stage — not to mention how effective Goodell’s sledgehammer threat has been in making sure that moment arrives on time.

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