Football is, at its core, a game of long-held rules and traditions. Come this fall, Fox hopes to break some of them.
Executives at Fox Sports expect to conduct a broad range of advertising experiments during “Thursday Night Football,” the primetime pigskin showcase that will air on Fox Broadcasting for the next five years under a rights deal valued at more than $3.25 billion.
“You’re going to have natural breaks at least four times per quarter,” notes Neil Mulcahy, Fox’s executive vice president of sports sales. “What can you do in there? Are there opportunities to do live commercials? A long-form commercial?” Mulcahy suggests Fox is open to everything from a two-minute movie trailer to having a member of the on-screen Fox Sports team talk about weekend sales on behalf of a retail sponsor. “It’s going to be as creative as the advertising client wants to be,” he says.
Live broadcasts of football, baseball and other sporting events are high on the list of TV’s most popular programs. For networks, the best part of sports is that viewers who watch live can’t skip past ads on a delayed-viewing platform. Yet with a rising generation of viewers trained to reject the notion of sitting through long commercial breaks, the sports leagues and TV networks are working furiously to blur the lines between when the games are supposed to stop and the advertising is supposed to start.
There’s good reason to cut back on traditional ad interruptions. Just as audiences have begun to migrate toward on-demand streaming of their favorite scripted dramas and comedies, so too are baseball, football and basketball fanatics finding new ways to watch their favorite sports. TV ratings for the NFL’s last season fell 9.7%, according to Nielsen, after a drop of 8% tumble in 2016. Even the Olympics isn’t immune to viewer fragmentation. With that in mind, sports executives see a future in which more commercial messages are tucked into “natural breaks” in game play rather than a standard commercial interruption — and the moves could spell the end for certain advertising formats that have supported TV sports for decades.