SBJ/September 4 - 10, 2006/This Weeks News

NFL ad sales a bonanza for networks

The NFL is showing its programming strength again this year, as networks are commanding 6 to 7 percent across-the-board increases in advertising rates during NFL games this fall, despite an overall market that is generally flat.

Just before the NFL’s regular season kicks off Thursday night, ad inventory among the network partners is shrinking fast, according to media buyers and network officials. ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” is virtually sold out, while Fox and NBC say 85 percent of its ad inventory has been sold already. CBS is reporting that 80 percent of its inventory is sold.

“This is a big win for the networks when you look at what happened during the prime-time upfront,” which was flat, said Larry Novenstern, Optimedia’s executive vice president and director of national electronic media. “You don’t buy prime time to reach men. There aren’t many places in prime time where you can reach men. Sports is one of them.”

According to an informal survey of media buyers, NBC is commanding an average of about $315,000 for 30-second spots for its “Sunday Night Football” programming. In general, Fox and CBS are bringing in an average of about $275,000 for 30-second spots on national games, and up to $125,000 for regional games. ESPN is getting about $200,000 for its 30-second spots on Monday nights.

Most of the attention is on NBC, which has football for the first time since 1998, and ESPN, which takes the long-running “Monday Night Football” franchise to cable after its 36 years on ABC.

NBC has a couple of strong early-season games (the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the Miami Dolphins on Thursday and the “Manning Bowl,” which pits Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts against Eli Manning’s New York Giants the following Sunday) that are virtual sellouts.

“There’s only a unit or two left selling at a premium,” said Peter Lazarus, NBC Universal Sports and Olympics’ senior vice president of sales. “We’ve been able to maintain our premium over Sunday afternoon football.”

Ad buyers also are supporting NBC’s flexible schedule in a big way, with a “higher sellout level at the back end of the schedule than we anticipated,” Lazarus said.

“NBC’s in a nice position with the flexible schedule,” said Carat USA’s Mike Law. “If they have held back inventory during those games, that will help them at the end of the year. Advertisers will want to be in those games.”

Heavy buyers on NBC include the expected categories such as telecom (Sprint and Verizon) and beer (Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller). NBC signed Chevrolet as the presenting sponsor during its pregame show’s run-up to the kickoff (from 8 to 8:15 p.m.). Sprint also has signed on to sponsor a phone and online poll that most likely will have viewers pick a Play of the Day.

NBC’s “Football Night in America” pregame show will not have a title sponsor.

Since it’s a new NFL broadcaster offering a new franchise — Sunday night football on broadcast television — NBC needs to keep some inventory open as protection in case it doesn’t hit its ratings projections, which are in the mid-11 range.

One of the reasons ESPN is nearly sold out is because it has fewer spots to sell — 43 a game versus broadcasters’ 65. That’s because ESPN has to give more of its ad sales time for cable and satellite operators to sell into their local markets.

ESPN also credits its exclusivity (it’s the only game on Monday) and surround strategy. It’s completely sold out in September games and is almost full in October.

“Now, it’s really a question of how much of the inventory that we have set aside for make goods are we willing to put into market,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN customer marketing and sales.

ESPN said the beer and auto sales are strong. But it also has signed some clients new to the NFL, such as Men’s Wearhouse. Meanwhile, Toyota and Lexus will sponsor Monday night’s halftime show, Miller Lite will sponsor “NFL Primetime,” which now will be on Mondays at 6 p.m., and UPS will sponsor “NFL Countdown.”

General Motors secured product placement sponsorship during ESPN’s new intro to “Monday Night Football.”

As part of ESPN’s surround strategy, these sponsors also are “buying shoulder programming and online,” Erhardt said.

For the Sunday afternoon programmers, Fox and CBS, business is similar to the last several years, with the same group of advertisers paying 6 percent more this year across the board.

Fox singled out quick-service restaurants, delivery services, computers and technology, and apparel and telecom companies as big buyers this year. It signed AT&T to sponsor the postgame show and its “Game Breaks.”

CBS said it had brought new advertisers on board this year, but would not disclose them. Southwest Airlines returns as the sponsor of its “NFL Today” pregame show.

“It’s a very healthy marketplace,” said John Bogusz, CBS’s executive vice president of sports sales. “The NFL is an unbelievable programming and marketing tool.”

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