ViacomCBS Takes First Step on Road to 2021 Super Bowl (EXCLUSIVE)

Kansas City Chiefs' Morris Claiborne (20)
Charlie Riedel/AP/Shutterstock

Fox’s Super Bowl is done. ViacomCBS’ starts today.

Viewers of any of 24 TV networks owned by the newly-merged media company Monday are likely to witness a promotional blitz for Super Bowl LV, which is slated for broadcast on CBS from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Florida on  February 7, 2021.

The game may be a more than a year away, but the promotion around it is not.  The promos, which read “CBS, your home for Super Bowl LV,”  are expected to run between 15 and 20 times on each network Monday and will also surface from various corporate and network social-media feeds. They represent just the first step in a broader plan ViacomCBS is working on for the big event.

“If you look at ViacomCBS, we reach every age group and demographic on a daily basis,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, in an interview. The company informed the NFL of its plans on Saturday, McManus says, and “it just shows what our commitment is to the NFL and big events on ViacomCBS.”

The Super Bowl has always been a massive event with an importance that looms large for each media company that has the rights to show it. Last night’s broadcast on Fox won approximately $435 million in in-game advertising, according to an early estimate from Kantar, a tracker of ad spending – a record amount for the event. That trumps the previous record, $390 million in 2017. Last year’s broadcast, also shown on CBS, took in around $336 million, according to Kantar.

Yet as the media industry shifts, the Super Bowl is taking on even greater importance. With more people choosing streaming, on-demand video to watch scripted favorites, traditional media companies are more dependent than ever on live sports and news. Last night, Fox Corporation used the Super Bowl to put a spotlight on a new set of  assets that is smaller and more focused since the company sold the bulk of its studio and cable assets to Walt Disney.  The company’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIV marked “the first year of a new Fox,” said Brad Zager, head of production for Fox Sports, in a recent interview. “That wasn’t lost on us.”

ViacomCBS’ promotional salvo launches as big media companies are eager to engage with the National Football League about extending the rights deals they have to broadcast top games. CBS and Fox both own rights for Sunday-afternoon games, some of TV’s most watched – and, for advertisers, among the most expensive. The NFL’s current agreements are heading toward the end of their term. A deal with  ESPN will expire after the 2021 season and pacts with CBS, Fox and NBC are set to end after the 2022 cycle.

ViacomCBS executives have been making their case in public for the better part of a year.  In February of 2019, McManus told investors that CBS Corp. would “do what is necessary” to keep its NFL rights. ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish said in September that the new company would have a stronger hand than CBS would have if it were still flying solo.  “We bring broadcast reach, first-class creative capabilities, young market reach to complement the older reach and international reach,” Bakish said during a talk with investors. “That’s a very substantial package as we move forward.” ViacomCBS gets next year’s game as part of a swap with NBCUniversal that allows for a schedule that will pair the 2022 contest with NBCU’s Winter Olympics.

The new promos are slated to be part of a year-long promotional campaign, and the company has already started planning how it can amplify the gridiron classic across various media holdings. Bakish is overseeing a large group of around 80 executives dedicated to distribution, promotion, and more. The team represents “really, every aspect of the company,” McManus says.

ViacomCBS is under some Wall Street scrutiny. Now that it has made its case to investors for merging, analysts want to see better defined goals, says Michael Nathanson, a media analyst with MoffettNathanson, in a recent research note. Disney has articulated a strategy for scripted programming and streaming, while Fox and Discovery are emphasizing live or unscripted fare. Shares of ViacomCBS have dipped, he says, while investors “wait to see if the company can change the narrative” and articulate its story more clearly.

Meanwhile, the company has been unveiling maneuvers aimed at maximizing reach among viewers. Many of its networks teamed up to amplify CBS’ January 26 broadcast of the Grammys. MTV, VH1 and CMT rebroadcast a primetime CBS News special on the event anchored by Gayle King. MTV ran a Grammy celebration special and many networks ran tune-in promos in the hours leading up to the CBS broadcast.

Super Bowl talk often goes silent for a while after Game Day, but it’s not unusual to hear whispers of the network holding the rights to next year’s match-up starting to pitch advertisers on the event. When CBS had the rights to broadcast Super Bowl 50 in 2016, it laid out a plan to Madison Avenue just as the 2015 game was wrapping up. Executives initially called the event “The L,” after the Roman numeral representing 50.