The NFL kicks off its 100th season on Thursday, and grabbing audience attention will be more crucial for the league than ever, as its current broadcast rights deals with CBS, NBC, Fox, and ESPN all expire in 2022.
Last season, NFL ratings bounced back after two years in a row of declines, finishing up 5% from 2017 with an average 15.8 million viewers per game. That’s still down from the average 18.8 million viewers of 2015, which many pundits speculate might have been the peak, with cord-cutting growing and more competition for eyeballs than ever before.
But even if NFL ratings have peaked, the league still pulls more viewership than anything else on live television—and it isn’t close. Of the top 100 live broadcasts in 2018, 64 were NFL games.
Those are the kind of stats league executives will bring to the table in the imminent negotiations with networks (and with streaming players like Amazon and Facebook) over how much NFL rights packages are worth.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen it in presenting the NFL right now,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told Yahoo Finance on Wednesday. “All television has had diminished viewership; the NFL has disproportionately not had that kind of drop off. Our television is actually stronger than it has ever been. That will serve us well when we are renegotiating our agreements with all the networks.”
The league will surely end up getting more money from its new TV contracts than it did last time around—that’s how these renewals work. So, how much more?
Jones thinks the NFL could get 50% more.
Why? The tide of sports betting legalization. In May 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on sports betting, leaving states free to legalize sports betting in their own state. Ten states did so, joining Nevada, which already had it. There is now some form of legal sports betting in: Nevada; New Jersey; New York; Delaware; Mississippi; West Virginia; Pennsylvania; Rhode Island; Indiana; Iowa; and Arkansas.
“Betting and wagering has been an integral part of the NFL for a long time through individuals, in various forms, making their wagers, my town against your town,” says Jones. “But it’s always to the benefit of the viewership. The viewership is where our numbers will increase. People will stay longer. That value is how our sport will benefit from gaming. I dare say that gaming will increase the value of television, of presenting our games, I dare say it will go up 50% because of the gaming concentration.”
Of course, Jones is talking his book. Of course an NFL team owner is bullish on NFL broadcast rights, and thinks the NFL should get paid much more for its games than in the past.
But Jones is referencing a popular truism: that people watch more games when they bet on those games. (Fantasy sports operators like DraftKings and FanDuel make the same argument: that fantasy football is good for viewership.) Numerous surveys support that. Americans are more likely to watch a sports event if they have financial skin in the game.
That means the current momentum of sports betting legalization in America is hypothetically good for the NFL, and by extension, good for NFL viewership.
Still, a 50% spike is quite a stretch. The NFL currently brings in around $5 billion per year from its TV deals; Jones is forecasting that could rise to $7.5 billion.
The media world won’t have to wait long to find out if he’s right—last time around, the league announced its new deals in 2011, two years before they had been set to expire. That means we could see the new contracts hammered out as soon as 2020.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.