SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/Special Report

TV ad sales show NFL’s still the king

NFL advertising has outperformed market projections, commanding 8 percent to 9 percent rate increases and in some cases bursting into double-digit gains.

Most buyers had predicted slightly lower price increases, and few expected inventory to be so scarce by Labor Day.

All three broadcast networks that carry the NFL, as well as ESPN, have sold more than 90 percent of their regular-season inventory, media buyers and network officials say.

ABC is commanding prices above $300,000 per commercial unit in "Monday Night Football," while Fox — which some buyers said got the highest increases of any network — has been pulling in more than $250,000 per unit. CBS, more steadfast than in years past in its drive for the highest possible pricing, is coming in about $250,000 per unit on average, buyers said.

"In previous years there was some attrition that took place, but this year we've had a pretty low attrition rate, which means just about everybody is coming back and coming back with more money," said John Bogusz, senior vice president of sales at CBS Sports.

Networks cited the financial services and men's grooming categories as big gainers, as well as prescription drugs, a development that one sales executive attributed to the aging of the baby-boomer generation and the NFL fan base along with it. Levitra, a competitor to Viagra and an official NFL sponsor, will make a major push through advertising on NFL games (see "Drug makers turn to NFL to challenge Viagra").

The only category in which the networks felt a big drop-off was "malternatives," the new breed of alcoholic beverages that burst onto the market last year.

CBS officials said the Super Bowl is strong, with about 75 percent of the commercial units already gobbled up and the most desirable ones selling for $2.2 million or more, a price that the last two networks to carry the game had sought but seldom received.

CBS also has moved quickly to sell title rights to its Super Bowl pregame programming, starting at 11 a.m. with an hour-long show produced by sister network Nickelodeon. All but the 3-4 p.m. hour and 5-5:30 p.m. half-hour have been sold, and the network is in "active negotiations" regarding those blocks, Bogusz said.

The league, which sells the halftime sponsorship directly, is close to a deal with AOL to replace AT&T Wireless as the halftime sponsor, sources said.

In the more immediate future, the networks are nearly sold out of NFL inventory for September, a period that in some years has been a difficult sell. As of last week, ABC had just four units left for the final Monday night game of the month, and had sold out the first three, a network executive said.

Although ABC was dealt a blow when Chrysler moved most of its NFL advertising money from Monday night to Sunday afternoons, the network reported strong spending from Ford behind the launch of its 2004 F-150 pickup truck, as well as heavy advertising on Monday night from Nissan and General Motors.

In the revitalized financial services category, Lincoln Financial has signed on as title sponsor of the "Countdown to Kickoff," an amalgam of inventory that includes a plug on all shoulder programming leading up to the opening game on Thursday as well as the first Monday night game on Sept. 8, which — not coincidentally — will be at the brand-new Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

Principal Financial and MassMutual also made significant Monday night buys.

"We're in one of those lovely spots where we're deciding what we want to take," said Ed Erhardt, president of customer sales for ABC Sports and ESPN.

While the sales mavens at the networks can always be counted on to put an optimistic spin on things, in this case buyers agree that the NFL market is the strongest it's been in several years, and the NFL represents one of the most sought-after types of programming in television.

"There's something special and unique about it," said Jon Mandel, co-CEO and chief negotiator at the buying agency MediaCom. "The product has not become commoditized and you know what you're going to get. It's a clean telecast and it's something that isn't TiVo-able."

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