SBJ/October 15 - 21, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

MJ ad deals a tough sell

Television networks are hitting the streets with pricier advertising packages for games in which    Michael Jordan will appear, and largely facing the same cold shoulder for those deals as they are for most of the other inventory they're trying to sell.

Turner Sports is guaranteeing a higher rating for the five Washington Wizards games it added to its schedule, and raised advertising prices accordingly. Comcast Sports Net Mid-Atlantic, which has the regional television rights to the Wizards, more than doubled its advertising prices, anticipating a 500 percent increase in ratings. Fox Sports Net has gone as far as creating a national Jordan package, in which television ads follow Jordan from city to city as he appears on different Fox Sports Net affiliates across the country.

The question is, will anyone buy?

"It may be a great opportunity not fully realized because of the marketplace," said Keith Cutler, executive vice president of sports sales and marketing at Turner Broadcasting Inc.

Cutler said he is hopeful that several advertisers will buy in by the start of the regular season Oct. 30, but as of late last week, Turner had not signed any new deals since Jordan made his comeback official.

Turner is guaranteeing a rating "in the low two's" for games in which Jordan appears, compared with a 1.5 for other games, Cutler said. The cost-per-thousand rate is the same for both, but the higher ratings for Jordan games mean higher prices, if the inventory sells. For Jordan's regular-season debut in New York against the Knicks, Turner is guaranteeing a 5 rating, despite having the game go head-to-head with the World Series.

Turner hopes to sell entire packages that include the Jordan games and all other NBA contests on TBS and TNT, but if advertisers want to cherry-pick the Wizards games, Turner won't turn them away.

"If they want to come in and buy Jordan games, we're not going to turn them down, but that's not part of our sell strategy," Cutler said.

But for cherry-picking galore, Fox Sports Net is offering Jordan national packages that will place ads on Fox Sports Net affiliates whenever one of the teams the network carries locally is facing Jordan and the Wizards.

Fox, which has rights deals with 23 NBA teams, anticipates that local ratings will jump an average of 40 to 60 percent when teams play the Wizards, up from the 2.3 network-wide average for NBA telecasts.

The top seasonlong Jordan package is priced at $1.2 million, which includes two to three 30-second ads in each game, depending on availability. A second "blackout" package piggybacks off Turner's coverage by selling spots only in Fox Sports Net's exclusive local coverage of the Wizards games carried by Turner nationally, which Turner is not allowed to show in teams' home markets. That package, priced at $300,000, specifically targets Turner's national advertisers by offering them a reach across the entire country that they can't get through Turner alone.

Fox has experimented with this sort of "follow the star" package before, hastily putting one together around Mario Lemieux when he returned to the NHL last season. It also has tried to link advertisers with particular athletes who endorse their products. But the network has always had a difficult time finding advertisers to buy into such programs beyond a spot or two in individual markets. This year is no different.

"Obviously, with marketplace conditions the way they are, many advertisers are saying, 'We don't have the money for it, but what a great idea,'" said Kyle Sherman, senior vice president of national spot sales at Fox Sports Net.

No matter how difficult market conditions are, Comcast Sports Net Mid-Atlantic is expecting a 20 percent increase in advertising revenue this year, on the back of Jordan as well as Jaromir Jagr joining the Washington Capitals and the University of Maryland being nationally ranked in football and basketball.

Thirty-second ads sold for about $1,000 on both Wizards and Capitals telecasts last season (sometimes more for Wizards games), and have been raised to $3,000 for the Wizards this season and $1,500 for the Capitals, said David Nevins, Comcast Sports Net Mid-Atlantic's president. The network, which reaches 5 million homes from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, averaged about a 1 rating for Wizards games last season, and slightly less than a 1 for the Capitals. The network is expecting the teams to garner a 5 and 2 average rating, respectively, this season.

By keeping the percentage increase for ad prices below that of the ratings, Nevins said he's confident the inventory will sell.

"Obviously, it's a tough market for ad sales," Nevins said. "However, the response we're getting has been extraordinary, by virtue of the fact we have a product people know lots of folks are going to watch. We're getting very positive reactions to pitches we're making."

The biggest winners from Jordan's comeback may be advertisers who bought time before he announced his return and are locked in at lower prices. AT&T, which sponsors the Turner halftime show; Hyundai, which sponsors the postgame wrap-up; Budget Rent A Car; McDonald's and Wendy's all signed off on packages with Turner before Jordan made it official, and Cutler said they won't have to spend an extra dime to get their ads on Wizards games.

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