Granted, they're wagering it will only be a small part -- and the odds are heavily in favor of a truncated season and, ad gods be praised, a Super Bowl. But the stakes are high, so marketers and their surrogates at agencies are preparing for a life without football in 2011 and the beginning of 2012.
In an Ad Age poll conducted last week, 42% of respondents said they think the season will at least be truncated.
All of which brings up the question: With replacement TV audiences selling at a premium, where will that $3 billion spent on TV ads go, and will any of it migrate to digital?
Each year, the biggest web publishers, video sites and social networks cast a hungry eye on the TV upfronts, but are mostly on the outside looking in. But this year gives digital its strongest case for dollars ever: an NFL strike means there will be more TV dollars than the market can absorb. And when it comes to reach and frequency, the NFL's closest competitors may not be on TV at all, but online.
Right now, agency media buyers are war-gaming two scenarios: a shortened, late-starting season and a full cancelation. Those with the biggest dollars and leverage -- such as WPP's GroupM -- will move what they can to college football, the Major League Baseball playoffs, or male-skewing prime-time fare such as Fox's Sunday night animated comedies or late-night staples Jimmy Kimmel Live and Turner's Adult Swim.
"It's literally impossible to replace all that money in the TV marketplace, which is already tight, never mind that the NFL season drives the biggest ratings on TV," said Dave Campanelli, senior VP-national TV at Horizon Media. "For most advertisers, going dark just isn't an option. When you're talking about what to do with NFL money, anything is on the table at this point."
That means digital advertising execs' pitches are getting a second look. Facebook's usual NFL pitch is to get marketers to add social elements to their TV campaigns. But this year, it's pitching its ability to reach NFL fans at scale, with or without the games.
"In a perfect world, it would be NFL-plus -Facebook," said Facebook U.S. head of sales Tom Arrix. "But we can target men whether the NFL plays or not. We're able to target the information users put in their profiles, say if it's an NFL fan or a Patriots fan or Jets fan, or more broadly football."
Given that there won't be many football-related web clips onto which to attach advertising, video network Tremor Media is running analyses of what NFL fans watch in addition to sports clips to allow advertisers to buy that audience in different types of video, like sci-fi or outdoor. "The question we are hearing from the TV side at agencies is , 'What can you do to help us show the network guys that there are alternatives?'" said Tremor sales chief Jason Krebs.
And while the big guys will stick with TV, those with smaller budgets will be looking for alternatives. Since TV buyers are also buying TV online at most shops, outlets such as network websites Hulu or Crackle, or portals with video, such as Yahoo or MSN, stand to gain.
One problem: Premium online video inventory is even more scarce than TV. Increasingly, it's the social nets that have the huge, immediate audiences, but they're also the least-proven.
That's why some are saying now is the time to experiment. "The question every CMO must answer now is 'What is your social strategy?'" said Efficient Frontier CEO David Karnstedt. "If all of a sudden you've got freed-up dollars looking for a demo, now is the time to shift it."
That's not to say that it's going to start raining TV cash in digital land. The transfer of meaningful TV dollars to online would be difficult politically at most agencies and among marketers, where TV budgets are closely guarded. And it would take a CMO-level decision to reallocate them.
A better play for some publishers is to target NFL dollars already being spent online rather than trying to turn around the aircraft carrier that is TV spending. Those dollars will be looking for a home too if there are no NFL clips, news and fantasy football -- a huge ecosystem in its own right. And a need for replacement players could come as soon as July and August in the weeks leading up to what would typically be a preseason.
"The opportunity for us is to go after people spending money around the games," said Keith Richman, CEO of Break.com, a network of sites targeting young men. "Do people really want to be sponsors of lockout coverage? The more this becomes prolonged, the more people will have to start looking at other entertainment options."