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CBS Sports’ NFL ad sales hold steady amid pandemic

Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman, said the network’s advertising sales for the upcoming National Football League season are on pace with last year, despite the global economic hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, and that a meaningful portion of the network’s inventory for Super Bowl LV in February is already sold out.

The network, meanwhile, also plans to prominently feature in NFL game broadcasts both the pandemic, which has for now eliminated in-game attendance in most local markets, and the racial justice issues that have loomed large across the United States this year.

“We’re not going to keep our heads in the sand,” McManus said. “We’re going to cover the stories as they exist, but we’re going to try to keep them in perspective with the fact that people are tuning in to watch a football game. We don’t know what kind of expressions are going to take place on the field. So we’re going to be nimble and flexible. But I think people are really thirsting for live sports content, particularly NFL football.”

Mike Tirico, host of NBC Sports’ Sunday night NFL showcase Football Night in America, predicted that network will take a similarly balanced approach to covering the social justice issues.

“We’ll cover it as it’s relevant to the game,” Tirico said. “The story on Sundays is pretty simple. We get you ready for the [Sunday Night Football] game coming up, but also try to give you everything that happened of significance in the other NFL games. So if there is a form of protest, something significant that happens, we’ll discuss it, document it. If need to put it in perspective, so be it, but then we’ll show you the highlights of the game.”

The racial justice issues have been a prominent focus this offseason for the league, and particularly commissioner Roger Goodell, has acknowledged prior mistakes on the issue, admitted he should have listened sooner to former quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick, and committed large-scale funding to the issue. Goodell has also said repeatedly he wants players to protest peacefully as they see fit.

Amid all that activity, McManus said he does not predict any ratings erosion due to a network focus on societal issues during NFL game production, as was the case in 2016 and 2017. CBS Sports, like all other US media networks, will also be aided beginning this month by Nielsen’s inclusion of out-of-home viewership data in national ratings reports.

“I think the ratings are going to be terrific,” McManus said.

CBS Sports has also sold out is prime-level positions for the first half of Super Bowl LV, set for February 7, 2021, in Tampa, Florida, with sales continuing for other ad positions in the game.

The rest of the network’s NFL advertising inventory is selling on par with 2019, despite significant economic hits to key spending categories such as airlines and automakers.

“Sales are very brisk,” McManus said. “We’re pacing at the exact same level we were last year.”

The network, meanwhile, will need to adjust to producing NFL games in empty stadiums, just as every other league rightsholder will. And without attending fans, producers and directors are planning to focus camera angles and storytelling more specifically on players and coaches on the field.

“It will be the opportunity for the directors to build drama through their camera shorts, using players and coaches and things that are happening on the field,” said Harold Bryant, CBS Sports executive producer and senior vice president of production.