NFL ready to start the 2021 season — here’s what’s happening with the league’s business on and off the field

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Brandon Smith (80) runs for a first down during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Jacksonville Jaguars on August 29, 2021 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Matthew Pearce | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

The National Football League is on the clock and ready to commence its 102nd season on Thursday.

The defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play the Dallas Cowboys in what should be a highly rated opener among two popular quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. Meanwhile, the NFL’s overall opponent remains Covid, with more variants developing and fears of another wave of cases in the fall.

A positive case has already affected the season opener, with Cowboys starting offensive lineman Zack Martin missing the game. And last month, a mini outbreak occurred within the Tennessee Titans. The NFL said more than 99% of league and team staff are vaccinated, but added it expects more positive cases this season even among vaccinated individuals. Still, the league remains adamant about finishing the season on time. The NFL already fined players for Covid-related violations and threatened forfeitures for teams that don’t follow the rules.

So, the show will go on. Here’s a quick glimpse of what’s happening on the business front before the 2021 NFL season kicks off.

Chasing 100 million viewers 

After agreeing to more than $100 billion over the next decade for its media rights, the NFL’s viewership will remain in the headlines this season, especially with networks increasing advertisement rates to pay for their investment.

ViacomCBS will further leverage its NFL content and return the Nickelodeon game during the postseason. The kid-friendly telecast was popular and could draw marketers looking for a younger audience. And CNBC parent company NBCUniversal is banking its Super Bowl broadcast could draw 100 million viewers. The 2022 Super Bowl ad rate is already expected to increase to roughly $6 million, up from from $5.5 million this year. At that rate, it’s likely to eclipse $545 million in revenue, which CBS Sports made from the 2021 game.

The question is: in a new TV consumption environment, will the NFL’s top contest ever consistently attract more than 100 million viewers again?

The Super Bowl failed to draw in 100 million viewers two of the last three years, following nine straight years of eclipsing that total. The 2021 game averaged 96.4 million viewers (including streaming) for the Bucs vs. Kansas City Chiefs matchup. It’s the lowest viewed Super Bowl game since 2007.

NBC last aired the Super Bowl in 2018 and drew over 100 million viewers. The 2015 game between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks remains the most-watched Super Bowl with roughly 114 million viewers, and that game was also NBC.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium.
Mark J. Rebilas | USA TODAY Sports | Reuters

Brady should help jump-start things

Both the games included Brady, who started 2021 strong on and off the field.

Brady, 44, won his seventh Super Bowl after leading the Bucs past the Chiefs, reclaimed the top-selling merchandise spot from Patrick Mahomes. He even got into the NFT business. On Thursday, he’ll look to move up in the record books, too.

Brady needs 300 passing yards to join quarterback-turned-NBC-Sports-analyst Drew Brees as the only two players in NFL history with at least 100 career games of 300 or more passing yards. Doing so in a primetime matchup should only help the storytelling component of the broadcast. 

NBC aims to surpass an average of 19.3 million viewers, which its opener drew for last year for the Chiefs and Houston Texans matchup. According to advertising data firm EDO, the network brings in an estimated ad spend of $50 million for NFL openers.

NFL season a ‘monumental event’ for betting firms

And with football back, more sports bettors will look to earn extra income around NFL games.

A record 45.2 Americans are estimated to bet on games during the 2021 season, with 19.5 million placing online bets, according to the American Gaming Association. The firm added Americans have bet “$27 billion on sports in the first seven months of 2021, generating more than $350 million in federal, state, and local taxes.”

With states including Michigan, Virginia, and Arizona now allowing legalized gambling, PlayUSA, which tracks the regulated U.S. sports betting marketing, estimated players could wager over $20 billion on NFL and college football-related bets this season.

So far, the Chiefs and Bucs are the favorites to win the Super Bowl. One individual from New Jersey already bet $38,000 the Bucs would finish with a perfect record. The wager was made via Caesars Sportsbook and could net $1.3 million if the Bucs go undefeated.

Eric Hession, co-president of Caesars Entertainment digital, the division that operates its sportsbook, called the start of the NFL season “a monumental event.”

He added Caesars’ tech teams are testing its systems by using large quantities of simultaneous bets and transactions to prepare for the volume of NFL wagers this weekend.

“Every [sportsbook] recognizes the NFL is the primary betting opportunity for the season, and it’s the real catalyst to get customers to come into your property, download your app, or to participate with from a betting experience,” Hession told CNBC on Wednesday.

Hession said Caesars already committed over $400 million around its parlay product, offering a $25 million reward each week during the season. In this product, bettors wager $10 and attempt to predict point spread bets for each NFL game. The parlay card offering is avalilable in New Jersey, Washington D.C. and Nevada.

With NFL attendance returning and restaurants and sports bars active again following pandemic closures during the 2020 season, Hession predicted a “dramatic” increase in sports wagers.

NFL business continues to thrive

Caesars is one of three top betting companies that stuck exclusive deals with the NFL last April. The agreement allows Caesars to use NFL intellectual property around its sports betting offerings, and it will also help the league increase its national revenue.

The NFL made about $9.8 billion it national revenue, with 32 teams receiving a record $309 million each, according to shareholder filings from the Green Bay Packers. A large part of the NFL’s revenue is media rights along with sponsorships, which attracted $1.62 billion last season.

Early estimations from sponsorship valuation firm IEG suggest that figure will increase to $1.72 billion for the upcoming season. In addition, IEG noted tech sponsorship revenue from Cisco, Microsoft, and a beverage deal with alcoholic beverage company Diageo will help the NFL thrive in sponsorship money.

DeMaurice Smith the Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association speaks during the NFLPA press conference on January 30, 2020 at the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beack, FL.
Rich Graessle | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

NFLPA to start its internal business

On the players side, expect discussions around Covid protocols and vaccine mandate debates to continue with the league throughout the year. 

The union continues to advocate for daily testing for all players to help prevent outbreaks, but the NFL only approved once per week testing for vaccinated players and daily testing for those unvaccinated. Covid issues aside, there’s also internal business for the NFLPA to resolve. 

The future of executive director DeMaurice Smith remains unclear, but this month will reveal more. First, NFL players will start the election to determine if Smith will lobby to retain his position unopposed. Smith needs to secure a unanimous vote among the NFLPA’s executive committee, or win approval from the board, which is made up of players from all 32 NFL clubs. Here, Smith will need at least 17 of 32 votes to retain the executive director’s seat or face opposition.

Smith was first elected in 2009, winning three elections to keep the position. Under Smith, the NFLPA has grown its business, including striking an equity deal with Fanatics, which will take over their trading card merchandising rights. Under Smith, the NFLPA also renewed a licensing agreement with Electronic Arts, creator of the popular Madden video game franchise, and grew its presence in professional video gaming. 

Smith also landed a new 10-year collective barging agreement deal with NFL owners last year. Under the agreement, the minimum salary for players with no experience increased again this season and now $660,000, up from $610,000 in 2020. That figure will increase by $45,000 per season throughout the remainder of the deal, eclipsing $1 million by 2030.

But it’s this CBA deal that continues to linger over Smith’s future.

The NFL added another regular-season game thanks to the pact. Some players are still upset about that, blaming the union leadership for additional health risks associated with the added contests. Asked about Smith’s future following the 2020 labor agreement, executive committee member Lorenzo Alexander told CNBC a unanimous decision is unlikely from the executive group.  

“I can say based on what happened over this last year, or so, it probably will be opened up to the board, and they’ll have the opportunity to decide on what happens next,” Alexander said in March 2020.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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