SBJ/January 31 - February 6, 2005/SBJ In Depth
Word on the street: 'Jimmy's hanging tough'
Published January 31, 2005
Media buyers have a name for the Fox Network: “Jimmy.”
“Jimmy is well sold,” they’ll say. Or “Jimmy is holding prices.”
They’re talking about Jim Burnette, senior vice president of sports sales at Fox Broadcasting. To Madison Avenue, he is literally synonymous with the network itself. Media buyers seem to get a buzz off doing business with Burnette, as if scrapping it out with “Jimmy” is what makes the job fun.
It’s not that Burnette does them any favors — he’s known for being no-nonsense and unbending. Yet media buyers regard him with the sort of reverence they once may have held for a tough basketball coach or a crotchety but wise professor.
Indeed, working with the 62-year-old Burnette is like going to school, or getting schooled. He has 39 years of experience selling ads for networks and has been with Fox Sports since it launched in 1994.
With the Super Bowl rapidly approaching, Burnette wasn't playing games when negotiating deals for the few remaining advertising slots.
His sense of the marketplace is unparalleled, buyers say, and he has the timing of a soothsayer. He knows when to cut prices and when to hold out. He knows when to extract every last dollar out of a property and when to say when.
“He’s got a very strong, visceral sense of the marketplace,” said Bill Cella, chairman of Magna Global, Interpublic Group’s primary buying agency. “He lives and breathes it. The man is sort of an icon in the world of sports sales.”
With this year’s Super Bowl, Burnette hit the marketplace in the summer looking for $2.4 million per 30-second spot, about $150,000 more per unit than CBS last year. Nothing new there. Networks always put a big price tag on the Super Bowl early, then start discounting as the game approaches.
But Burnette warned that he would hold prices, even for less-desirable placements in the second half of the big game.
“Jimmy’s hanging tough,” buyers said throughout the fall, with a strange sense of admiration. Some waited for prices to drop to the $1.7 million range, as they do practically every year. But as of mid-January, that hadn’t happened.
With fewer than 10 units left, Fox had not come off the $2.4 million price, and Burnette’s confidence was unshaken.
“There are advertisers right now who are waiting,” Burnette said with a smile in a rare interview, three weeks before the game. “These are traditional advertisers.”
His message: Wait all you want. We both know you want to be in the Super Bowl, and you’ll pay the going rate like everyone else.
Burnette said the Super Bowl is different than any other marketplace because companies generally plan to advertise well in advance. Therefore, there’s no reason to play games with prices. Find a rate the market can sustain and the spots will sell themselves.
Media buyers say Burnette has taken the same straightforward approach to the Super Bowl as he has to all of Fox’s many sports properties, whether it be the World Series, NASCAR or the NFL regular season.
John Miles, managing director at GM Mediaworks, a division of Interpublic Group that handles all national media for General Motors, says Burnette enters every negotiation with a clear goal, which dictates virtually every move.
“He’s always going to be very regimented about what he can give and is not going to deviate from that,” Miles said. “He’s got a very specific game plan and is going to stick to that plan.”
“He’s very cut-and-dry,” said Larry Novenstern, senior vice president and director of national buying at Deutsch Inc. “But the more deals you do with him and the more confidence he has in you, the more he’s going to ease up on you a bit. Sometimes his bark is not as bad as his bite.”
Novenstern has fond memories of working out a deal with Burnette in less than 36 hours for Visa to sponsor the NFL halftime show on Fox. When it was over, they put back a couple of beers, which “Jimmy” drank on ice, a personal trademark.
Burnette may be unflinching, but he’s also known for being creative and working with advertisers to develop new ideas. He’s been an innovator when it comes to product integration, sponsored enhancements and identifying new types of valuable inventory.
Burnette favors the front lines and is involved in practically every ad deal at Fox Sports.
While at NBC from 1982 to 1992, he was the first to sell presenting sponsorships for Notre Dame broadcasts, or to give automakers category exclusivity by quarter for NBA games.
At Fox, he’s managed to blur the line between advertising and production in a matter befitting the network’s brash style.
One of his favorite examples came during the 2003 NASCAR season, when auto parts retailer Napa launched an ad that included footage taken from Michael Waltrip’s in-car camera. Burnette worked it out so that immediately after the ad ran, the race would return to action with a live shot from Waltrip’s same in-car camera.
Burnette is a believer in this type of advertising, but says it must make sense to viewers and fit with the broadcast as a whole.
“We want the producers in the truck to feel the enhancements work, and not make anyone look stupid,” he said. “I don’t ever want there to be a situation where [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill says, ‘If Jimmy calls, tell him I’m not in.’”
Burnette is ultimately guided by a love of sports and a love for what he does. His New York office is filled to the brim with memorabilia, haphazardly piled onto shelves and flowing out of two golf bags.
Burnette supervises eight people but is involved with practically every ad deal at Fox Sports. He says the only way to sell is to know exactly what is available at all times, and the only way to do that is to be on the front lines.
It may come as a surprise that Burnette is not always aggressive when it comes to selling off every possible bit of inventory. For instance, CBS and ABC have generally tried to find a title sponsor for every segment of the Super Bowl pregame show. Three weeks prior to this year’s game, Fox hadn’t, and Burnette said doing so was not a priority. Some incumbents will return with title rights to portions of the pregame show, but Burnette said Fox would be just fine without pregame sponsors. A choice? Or a smokescreen to cover for weak sales? Only Burnette knows for sure.
Another example: In addition to the 59 regular spots Fox will sell for the Super Bowl, the network has three more to sell that will air in the event of a coach’s challenge or injury. Asked about those spots, Burnette nonchalantly said Fox has made no attempt to sell them.
He likes to make it all look simple and easy. But by Super Bowl Sunday, chances are Burnette will have found money in places no one else ever thought to look.