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Volume 22 No. 43
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Top CBS ad executive says NFL sales strong despite league’s simmering controversies

Television executives spent a lot of time this offseason strategizing about how they would cover the NFL’s off-field social issues when the games started.


The protests and threatened boycotts so far this season have remained a big storyline for the league, but they have not scared away advertisers from buying time during the games, CBS’s top ad sales executive Jo Ann Ross said at the SBJ Game Changers Conference in New York last week.


Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer for CBS, referenced a preseason seminar at the network’s Manhattan office last month that was attended by NFL executives. “They talked about the anthem and kneeling and social justice versus patriotism,” she said. “They’re working on it. … There are a lot of divisive issues in the NFL right now.”


Network executives privately have said that those issues have accounted for one of many reasons why NFL television ratings have dropped over the past several years. But even in this political environment, advertiser interest in the games remains strong, with Ross citing a “very active scatter [market] in the fourth quarter” for NFL games. “I have not seen any pushback from the advertisers,” she said.


Advertisers are drawn to the fact that the games consistently bring the highest ratings on television, even as the league has been embroiled in controversy.


In August, ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro created a mini firestorm when he said his network did not plan to show the national anthem live during “Monday Night Football” games this season. Pitaro’s comments did not signify any change — ESPN did not show the anthem live in most games last season, either.


In her talk last week, Ross said CBS was not changing its strategy with regard to broadcasting the national anthem.


“We typically do not show the anthem,” she said. “We have no plans to show the anthem at the beginning of games. If that changes, we’ll have conversations with our partners at the NFL.”


This is a Super Bowl year for CBS, which will show the game next February from Atlanta. Ross did not offer stats on who has bought ads and how much they are paying, only allowing that it has been an “active marketplace.” Sources have said the Super Bowl is commanding around $5 million per 30-second spot. Networks typically wait until the week before the Super Bowl to announce an advertising sellout.


Jo Ann Ross said advertiser interest in the NFL has not dropped.
Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown
Jo Ann Ross said advertiser interest in the NFL has not dropped.
Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown
Jo Ann Ross said advertiser interest in the NFL has not dropped.
Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown

This is the sixth Super Bowl that Ross has sold for CBS, and she said each one “takes on its own life.” Advertisers, she said, have expressed excitement about having the game in the Atlanta market and the new stadium.


As you would expect, having the rights to carry the Super Bowl changes how CBS approaches ad sales. In non-Super Bowl years, CBS packages its NFL ad sales with its SEC games and NCAA Final Four games. During those Super Bowl years, CBS packages its NFL ad sales with Super Bowl units and pregame sponsorships.


“It’s a big game; there’s more pressure,” Ross said. “We won’t fail, we’ll get there. All the commercials will be there. It’s still the biggest audience out there. Clients still want to be associated with it.”


Two years ago, Ross acknowledged that some advertisers preferred to buy digital programming on the theory that they had more data about exactly who was watching their ads.


“That has been stemmed,” she said, referencing problems some advertisers have had when their messages get posted next to objectionable content. She also referenced digital measurements, which sometimes counted non-humans such as spam bots among their viewers.


“The good news for CBS and a lot of broadcast networks is that we package our digital inventory with our TV inventory. We try to count every single eyeball,” she said. “We want to be smart about it. We do not want to shove it down their throats. But where it makes sense, we’ll go there.”


Ross also referenced Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google as “frenemies.”


“All of these clients are buying broadcast television in a huge way to get their messaging out,” she said.

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.