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Ad market slow for big 2010 events

Wall Street may be showing signs of life with an unsteady bull market, but such indicators are not as positive for the television sports marketplace, where the advertising market is moving at a glacial pace for two of the biggest ticket items of 2010 — Super Bowl XLIV and the Winter Olympics.

Though the events are less than six months away, their network rights holders both have considerable inventory left to sell, and ad buyers seem content to wait until much closer to the events to make their buys. While NBC is said to be holding the line on its pricing for the Olympics, ad buyers described CBS as more flexible, with the average cost of an A-position 30-second spot during the Super Bowl dropping from the $3 million that NBC pulled last year.

The challenges facing two of sports’ biggest media properties underscore the toll the recession is having on the sports marketplace and undercut the widely held belief that sports are a recession-proof business.

Both CBS and NBC budgeted steady ad sales revenue to help meet cost projections for the first quarter, and most insiders say a slow market for these big events serves as an indicator for other television sports programming down the food chain.

“There’s a lot of high-profile [gross ratings points] in the first quarter,” said Kevin Collins, senior vice president and director of national broadcast for Initiative. “The question is if the dollars are going to be there, starting off the new year.”

One of the reasons for the slow market is due to the late-moving — and sluggish — upfront.  Broadcasters wrote business during the prime-time upfront season at prices that were down anywhere from 2 to 8 percent. Buyers expect NBC and CBS to write the bulk of their sports business in the weeks before the event at prices on par with those discounted rates.

“We’re still working through the upfront and finalizing 2010 budgets, so in a lot of cases there’s not certainty what [money] will be there,” said Jay Baum, managing partner of ad agency MediaCom.

Neither CBS nor NBC would say how much inventory remains available, but interviews with several ad sales executives paint a picture of a marketplace that is slower than ever.

By all accounts, NBC is experiencing a tougher market with the Winter Olympics from Vancouver, which fall in the middle of the February sweeps. With two weeks of ad time to fill on everything from broadcast and cable networks to Web sites and mobile platforms, NBC has significantly more inventory to push through than CBS does with the Super Bowl. NBC’s sales team has been active over the summer, hitting the street and taking meetings.

But its efforts to fill those slots have been hindered by a lack of participation from U.S. Olympic Committee and International Olympic Committee corporate partners. Some, like Bank of America, General Motors and Home Depot, pulled their Olympic sponsorships in 2009. Others, like Allstate and Acer, are official Olympic sponsors but aren’t planning big media buys.

By all accounts, NBC is holding the line on its pricing — the rates could not be determined — even as numbers from the upfront show ad rates are declining.

CBS is in a slightly better position with the Super Bowl than NBC is with the Olympics. Though the Super Bowl’s ad sales market also is breaking later than ever, CBS has Anheuser-Busch’s annual commitment for 10 in-game spots, and it has sold sponsorships for at least two hours of the game’s pregame show. It’s not known which companies bought those sponsorships.

Still, many ad buyers are opting to wait until closer to the game, believing that prices will continue to drop.

NBC and CBS executives declined to comment for the story.

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