Fox Bets On Streaming Boost for Its Super Bowl Coverage

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CBS raked in as much as $17 million in digital revenue in 2019 and Fox has sold out ad inventory quicker than ever.

When Fox Sports coverage of Super Bowl LIV kicks off Feb. 2 in Miami, there are two certainties. The game will reach the biggest live TV audience of the year by far, and it will set a streaming record — the question is by how much.

Live sports have been a TV ratings bulwark in an increasingly on-demand universe. Fox Sports unloaded all 77 of its in-game ad units before Thanksgiving, with prices for a 30-second spot topping out at $5.6 million, compared with $5.3 million in 2019. It was an extremely early benchmark for the Super Bowl, which typically sees in-game inventory available through December and into January.

"That's about as strong an endorsement of the Super Bowl as an ad-delivery platform as there could possibly be," says Mike Mulvihill, executive vp and head of strategy and analytics at Fox Sports. And Fox's live stream of the game could add millions more. The 2019 Super Bowl hit a record 7.5 million unique devices, per CBS Sports, the most ever for a Super Bowl and up 20 percent versus the previous year.

Analysts estimate that streaming revenue adds another 4 to 5 percent to the total ad haul; 2019's game took in $336 million in in-game linear TV ad revenue (for a total of $412 million including pre- and postgame ad spots), according to Kantar Media. So CBS could have taken in as much as $16.8 million in digital revenue for its live stream of Super Bowl LIII.

But while scripted television has been shedding live TV viewers, sports are not experiencing the same cannibalization effect of an on-demand content universe. NFL rights holders Fox, NBC and CBS pay the league $3 billion annually for rights to Sunday games and the Super Bowl.

And, despite the rise of cord-cutting, the networks say that for now streaming is only additive, "drawing in out-of-home viewers and those watching on second screens," notes Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports executive who now runs his own sports consultancy.

Last year's game, while down double digits for the lowest live viewership total in a decade, still was watched by 98.2 million people, according to Nielsen. And industry observers attribute the decline to the quality of the Patriots-Rams matchup – it was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever – as well as possible “Patriots fatigue.”

Regular-season NFL ratings are up this year. So is college football. Of the 100 most-watched telecasts of the fall, 93 are sports matchups. So the Super Bowl TV audience once again could pass 100 million.

"Media content has become so individualized," adds Mulvihill. "The one thing that is still bringing people together is sports. We now stand out as the only remaining campfire."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.