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Volume 22 No. 19
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NFL ad sales ‘pacing strongly ahead’ of a record-setting year

The NFL continues to defy all television industry trends, as all TV networks are bringing in record high ad sales revenue for the coming season.

Not only are networks charging record-high prices for NFL regular-season games this year, but the advertisers are buying. All networks describe a frothy marketplace and say they have more ads sold than they did at this time last year.

“We had a record-setting year last year, and we’re pacing strongly ahead of it,” said Neil Mulcahy, executive vice president of ad sales for Fox Sports, echoing comments from other network ad sales executives.

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Network executives say they are in the middle of a robust scatter market, which followed an exceptionally strong upfront selling season and defied ad buyers’ initial expectations of a sluggish marketplace. Ad buyers thought prices would stay flat (or maybe even drop a bit) due to the presence of the Olympics and presidential election, both of which were expected to siphon a lot of ad dollars away from the NFL. After all, NBC sold more than $1.2 billion in advertising for the Olympics this year — much of which would have been earmarked for the NFL.

Plus, ad buyers thought networks would have to scramble to make up for the $150 million that DraftKings and FanDuel spent on games last year, thereby creating even more inventory for the networks.

Add in the cord-cutting trend — ESPN, for example, has lost more than 2 million subscribers since the start of the last NFL season — which is depressing viewership across the board, and buyers hoped that the market would be softer than usual.

Instead, what they found is the strongest NFL marketplace in history.

“The NFL is still that live appointment television that delivers a mass audience,” said Seth Winter, NBC Sports Group’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “The advertisers know that predictability and scale are the two most important things when they invest their media dollars.”

NBC has seen the most growth of all the networks, posting 10 to 12 percent increases. NBC is charging a record-high $700,000 per 30-second spot in “Sunday Night Football” and $560,000 per 30-second spot in Thursday night football. For “Sunday Night Football,” NBC charges different prices depending on the game, Winter said.

The rest of the networks are getting 7 to 9 percent increases on their inventory.

While “Sunday Night Football” has been TV’s top-rated prime-time show for five straight season, CBS and Fox executives have stressed that the late Sunday afternoon games actually post higher ratings. As such, Fox is charging around $700,000 per 30-second spot for the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff; CBS is charging around $650,000.

“The late game on Sunday afternoon is the highest-rated game of the week,” said John Bogusz, CBS Sports’ executive vice president of ad sales. Prices for the earlier afternoon kickoff range from $300,000 to $500,000 per 30-second spot.

As in past years, autos are the strongest sector across the board. This year, quick-service restaurants, insurance and pharmaceuticals have increased their ad sales schedules, which has more than offset the decline from daily fantasy operators Draft-Kings and FanDuel, which spent a combined $150 million to saturate NFL games at the beginning of last season. Both daily fantasy companies will be back on NFL games this year, though at levels far below where they had been. The two companies are negotiating with all the TV networks and expect to have deals in place early in the season.

“We’re in conversations with them,” Winter said. “They have come back and shown interest in doing stuff with us. We’re probably days away from concluding something with them.”

Amid a bevy of legal challenges, daily fantasy advertising cratered in November and December last season. Privately, networks complained that some of their advertising bills went unpaid. But sources with several networks say the companies have been paying back those debts in the offseason and are ready to do business again.

“At this point, we’re in a place where we can move forward and do business with them,” Winter said.

DraftKings and FanDuel ads have been nonexistent so far. In the first 22 days of preseason football (Aug. 10-31), DraftKings aired two spots 18 times, for an estimated media value of $184,000, according to ad tracking company iSpot. FanDuel has not advertised. That marks a huge change from last year, when DraftKings ran five spots 223 times (estimated media value $4.2 million) and FanDuel ran 10 spots 93 times ($1.1 million) in the preseason’s first 21 days (Aug. 13-Sept. 2).

“They both are in the market right now,” Bogusz said. “Obviously, it’s not going to be at the level where they were at last year. But they are going to be back.”