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Volume 23 No. 8
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NFL ad sales at record levels despite standoff

Season ad spots more than 80% sold

Despite a labor situation that cramped league business for four months, television ad sales around this fall’s NFL games have skyrocketed to record levels. TV network executives say they have sold between 80 percent and 90 percent of their regular-season ad schedules, with spots getting price increases in the low double digits over last year.

“For the most part, we approached it as business as usual,” said one of the sector’s biggest ad buyers, Tom McGovern, managing director of Optimum Sports. “The worst case was that the league would lose a couple of games in early September. We all hoped that cooler heads would prevail.”

For the latest on the NFL’s labor agreement,

In fact, the only effect the labor situation had on the NFL’s TV market is with preseason games, where there is still a lot of availability across all of the networks. But advertisers bought air time in the regular season with the confidence — or the hope — that meaningful games would be played this fall.

At deadline, it appeared that labor peace was close at hand, showing that the advertisers’ bets on fall football paid off.

The fact that advertisers were willing to commit millions of ad dollars on a season that was in peril illustrates the NFL’s dominance as a TV property. In most cases, advertisers were protected: They would get their money back for games that weren’t played. But they still took a risk by committing such a significant part of their budgets to games that could have been canceled.

There’s a reason for taking that risk. NFL games make up the highest-rated programming on television and are attracting the interest of advertisers across the board. Traditional sports advertisers have bought time, of course, but so too have general market advertisers looking to reach the NFL’s massive and young audience, McGovern said. One television executive pointed to increased activity among movie studios in the coming regular season as evidence of that trend.

“The NFL is incredibly hot right now,” McGovern said. “It’s the new prime time.”

The scalding hot marketplace is especially good news for NBC, which is carrying the Super Bowl this season. NBC executives would not comment on Super Bowl sales, but several sources said spots are moving quickly. In some cases, advertisers have committed to more than $3.2 million for a 30-second spot during the game, sources said. Last year, Fox sold 30-second Super Bowl spots for about $3 million.

The Super Bowl moved earlier than ever last year, when Fox went into the regular season with only a handful of spots remaining. The network sold out the game in October. NBC’s pace is trending along those levels, sources said.

NBC confirmed that its regular-season “Sunday Night Football” schedule is about 85 percent sold. “Our sales have never been healthier,” said Seth Winter, NBC’s senior vice president for sports and Olympic sales and marketing. “We’re pacing significantly ahead of our prior year. By the time we finish, we will have exceeded it.”

Winter credited the NFL for keeping the ad market active through the lockout. “There was a confidence in the ad community to invest,” he said. “The deeds, actions and words from [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell, in particular, showed a resolve and a commitment to figuring these things out.”

Neil Mulcahy, Fox Sports executive vice president of advertising sales, said Fox was about 85 percent sold and was selling spots as though there was no labor unrest.

“We wrote more than we did last year,” he said. “People were ready, willing and able to do business.”

The NFL market, once again, is being paced by the auto category, according to every network executive interviewed for this story.

“Autos is the category that has really kept this market as healthy as it is,” said John Bogusz, executive vice president of sales and marketing for CBS Sports. CBS is about 80 percent sold, slightly less than the other broadcasters, but it generally sells more in the scatter market than other networks each year. For CBS, the scatter market generally starts in mid to late August.

The insurance and beer categories also have made healthy buys.

It’s not just the NFL games that are hot. ESPN says advertiser interest in the overall football market is helping its NFL shoulder programming and its college football schedule.

“We sold as though the season would happen,” said Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s president of customer marketing and sales. “We have had strong interest from advertisers not only in our ‘Monday Night Football’ and NFL studio inventory, but also our extensive college football inventory.”

For ad buyers, signs last week that a resolution was near served to bring a sense of relief. With its mass audience and young male demographics, ad buyers say their clients covet NFL games — which is why so many of them bought schedules during the work stoppage.

“You’ll hear a collective exhale because the approach has been business as usual, and now everyone can proceed with plans as planned,” said Sam Sussman, senior vice president for program planning and strategy at Starcom Worldwide.

Staff writer Tripp Mickle contributed to this report.