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College Football Postponement Upends Billions in Ad Revenue

Just as the TV sports advertising marketplace was finally getting back on track, as the MLB, NBA and NHL resumed play, it has been upended again.

Five months ago, every major sports league in the U.S. suspended operations due to the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving sports advertising in “uncharted territory,” one TV ad sales exec told Adweek at the time.

Now it’s happening again, this time with college football. Two of the Power 5 conferences have postponed their seasons this afternoon as a result of Covid-19—the Big Ten and Pac-12—with others likely to follow suit. That means that much of the college football season has been pushed to the spring, if not outright canceled—a decision that leaves nearly $1.7 billion in ad revenue hanging in the balance, and could in turn drive up the NFL and NBA’s revenue as marketers seek GRP alternatives.

Last season, college football brought in an estimated $1.69 billion in national and spot ad revenue, according to Kantar Media.

This afternoon, the Big Ten conference officially postponed its fall sports season, “due to ongoing health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said in a statement. The Big Ten said it will “continue to evaluate a number of options regarding these sports, including the possibility of competition in the spring.”

Soon after, the Pac-12 conference said that it was also postponing all sport competitions through the end of the year, adding that “when conditions improve, it would consider a return to competition for impacted sports after Jan. 1, 2021.”

“We have been working with our programming teams and our advertising partners on scenario planning for potential changes to the conferences’ planned play schedules,” said a Disney ad sales spokesperson. “As those changes happen, we will ensure our partners have the opportunity to move into other sports and entertainment programming or shift their media and marketing with the conferences’ new proposed league timing.”

Fox, which shares the package for those conference games with Disney, declined to immediately comment on the news.

In recent weeks, buyers had been increasingly pessimistic about the likelihood of college football being played this fall due to the surge in Covid-19 cases and outbreaks among leagues that have not adapted a “bubble” format, as the NBA and NFL have. Factor in the myriad of conflicting approaches to grappling with Covid-19 among various states, cities and universities, and many buyers began to develop contingency plans in the event of a postponement.

Some even advised clients who invest heavily in college football to buy up NFL inventory, as an insurance policy in the seemingly likely event that college football would not be played as scheduled. That would put them ahead of the anticipated rush on NFL inventory for college football advertisers who are now left in the lurch.

“If all these other [sports] come crashing down and the NFL still goes off, it’s gonna be pretty hard to buy it,” one buyer said.

While companies will presumably give marketers the option to stick with their buys, the postponement will send marketers scrambling for other options—with the NFL and NBA the two likely scenarios, especially as the continued production shutdown will lead to a dearth of original scripted content this fall.

Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, Omnicom’s sports media and marketing division, bluntly told Adweek last week that the prospect of college football this fall was “not going to work.” However, he has more faith that the NFL season will continue as planned. “We’re still approaching it with optimism,” he said. “[But] if something were to happen in that space, it would be incredibly challenging for us to make up those types of audiences.”

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