NFL Tackles TV’s ‘Billboard’ Ads as Fans Demand Fewer Game Breaks (EXCLUSIVE)

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One of TV’s oldest commercial formats is in danger of getting blitzed.

Viewers who tune in to Thursday night games on Fox, “Monday Night Football” on ESPN and “Sunday Night Football” on NBC have likely seen such a maneuver multiple times over the course of the 2018 season, even if they weren’t aware of what was happening. During one recent ESPN broadcast, an announcer told viewers they were about to see “a PlayStation Vue ‘multi-view.’” The audience saw three different angles of the game on a single screen, with a logo on top telling them the experience was sponsored by Sony-owned gaming system.

The three-box extravaganza was the direct result of a new exchange set up this season by the NFL, which is allowing TV networks to run more daring placements of commercial messages – if only they drop a specific type of advertisement known in the industry as a “billboard.” Even the casual pigskin viewer can recognize one by sight: During a quick break between plays, the TV audience sees an on-screen graphic touting beer, a razor blade or a new movie, while the announcer tells them the broadcast is “brought to you by…” Now the NFL is encouraging the networks to take such stuff away.

“Small changes in how ads are executed can really add up to how fans perceive games,” says Amanda Herald, VP of media strategy and business development at the NFL.

The new scrutiny on “billboards,” which have been used on TV for decades, shows how much pressure TV networks — and the advertisers who support them — are facing to change bedrock elements of the medium. Older generations of TV viewers had to tolerate commercial breaks that diverted their attention for minutes on end. Modern video fans, however, have grown accustomed to binge-viewing programs with few commercials – sometimes none.

Already, Fox has banished the billboards from its “Thursday Night Football” broadcast, while keeping them in Sunday-afternoon games, says Neil Mulcahy, executive VP of sports sales at Fox. ESPN is testing several ideas to take some commercial interruptions out of its Monday football broadcast, says Wendell Scott, senior VP of sales and marketing at ESPN, including a “commercial free” halftime show that is still commercial in nature, because it’ s sponsored by Hyundai’s Genesis.

The NFL, however can’t sack billboards entirely, however. Madison Avenue loves them.

Billboards have been used on TV for so long — they also pop up during live telecasts and awards shows — that they were already in full bloom before Mulcahy, who has been with Fox since 1987, joined the network. CBS has continued to run them in its football broadcasts, without apologies. “We have that option” to trade them out for a different kind of in-game commercial, “and if we see something we like, we may utilize it,” says Anthony Taranto, senior VP of NFL sales at CBS. “We will continue to give people billboards,” he added. “They are a solid value, and advertisers like them.”

And with good reason. Many of them are handed out to big-spending sponsors at very little cost. Sometimes they’re even free.

The ads often serve as a sort of cherry on top for advertisers buying large packages of commercial inventory. Football remains TV’s biggest audience draw — and one of its largest generators of ad revenue. In 2017, Fox’s Sunday afternoon games drew more than $1.66 billion in advertising, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, while NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” captured $945.6 million. CBS’ Sunday games lured more than $889.4 million and ESPN’s Monday Night Football” notched nearly $220.2 million. Thursday night games split last season between NBC, CBS and the NFL Network captured more than $290.5 million.

In total, regular-season NFL games brought TV networks more than $4.35 billion over the course of just a few months.

“When you tell a client, ‘We are going to take your billboards away,’ it’s not like they don’t think it’s a very big deal,” says Dan Lovinger, executive VP of sales for NBC Sports. “It’s a very big deal.”

The league isn’t looking to yank the short commercials from the game. Billboards “are not necessarily going to be eliminated entirely, and we are not seeking to mandate that,” says Herald. “But we are encouraging measurement of the results” of using other formats “to see what impact it has. Advertisers can get the same return and same bang for their buck – and maybe greater – but also engaged fans. It isn’t just about the ad message, but it’s also about the fan engagement.”

The NFL and other big sports leagues have in recent years tested concepts to give fans the feeling they are spending more time with games and fewer seconds with commercials that interrupt. Last season, the NFL cut back the number of ad breaks during a game by 25%, cutting the number of ad breaks per quarter to four from five, says Herald. The remaining commercial pods stretch a little longer.  And the league experimented with new formats for in-game messages. “When we looked at test groups of fans,” Herald says, “we did start to see significant improvement in levels of engagement and the environment of the game.”

Fox took over “Thursday Night Football” this season as part of five-year deal valued at about $650 million per year, and has wasted no time in changing the commercial environment of the broadcast. “Everything we do on Thursday night is completely different from what we do on Sunday,” says Fox’s Mulcahy. Fox has for the past year offered “six-second ads,” or short video features meant to update the old billboard format.

The goal, he adds, is to get advertisers “closer to the action” by placing commercials strategically at particular stops in the flow of the game, like the two-minute warning. Fox has also offered to have game announcers like Joe Buck do a commercial from the booth. “The unit costs for the game are pretty high, so the content has to be incredibly strong in order for someone to do something like that,” the executive says. Announcers recently told fans to watch an ad for Procter & Gamble’s Tide that emulated themes of commercials for the detergent seen during the most recent Super Bowl. Mulcahy says his team meets with NFL counterparts on Tuesdays to discuss which techniques are gaining traction.

Sports fans have started to see more frequent use of “double boxes,” or a split screen that features a commercial in one section and action on the field of play in the other. Some networks have made use of “next-gen stats,” or 20-second bursts of player information that can then be followed by a 30-second ad before the network’s cameras get back to the game. “It’s exclusive real estate” for advertisers, says NBC’s Lovinger.

The NFL is ready to offer other big concepts in exchange for sponsors surrendering their billboards, says Herald, including the takeover of an entire ad break during the game. And it’s testing even bolder concepts in new venues, like Amazon’s live-streaming Twitch, where Herald discusses technology that would let fans make purchases of NFL gear, chat with one another or make predictions about game statistics.

TV viewers can expect to see their NFL games change more in the future. “The league has been clear with their ambitions to speed up the games and make it less choppy for the viewers,” says Lovinger. “This process is certainly an evolutionary one.”