ESPN is virtually sold out of its "Monday Night Football" inventory, although it's worth pointing out that cable operators that carry the sports channel get about 30% of the total ad inventory available. Fox has sold between 85% and 90% of its Sunday football inventory. NBC, the new player in town, is 85% sold, and CBS is 80% to 85%. Overall, cost-per-thousand-viewer increases compared to last year outpaced this year's broadcast upfront pricing increases at around 5% to 8%.
ESPN's two-day coverage
"There's no question the deck has been shuffled," said Ed Erhardt, ESPN president of consumer sales and marketing. "The fact that we happen to have both exclusive windows on Monday night with NFL and Saturday college football on ABC is an important fact because the other guys are all fighting it out over one day -- Sunday." ESPN sells Walt Disney Co. sibling ABC's sports programming.
The exclusivity does make a difference, said buyers, and should bode well for ESPN. But CBS and Fox point out that Sunday afternoon football doesn't go up against prime-time or premium programming and their ability to regionalize games also boosts ratings.
But sales at all the networks are pacing ahead of last year thanks to growth in categories such as quick-service restaurants and foreign auto marketers. NFL Network, which will air Thursday and Saturday games starting after Thanksgiving, said it had little to report on sales at this time.
A sure bet for marketers
Sales at the major networks have been strong this year, because sports is seen as a sure bet among clients and agencies who need to put money down in the fourth quarter. Football offers continuity in terms of steady ratings and its place on the network grid. Tony Taranto, senior VP-NFL sales, CBS, said: "If you consider the failure rate of TV shows on broadcast and cable overall, the NFL doesn't shift, isn't pre-empted or canceled."
One of the biggest category drivers this year was consumer electronics, whose spending is estimated to be up about 20%. CBS did ink a major pact with Sony Electronics while Pioneer will be a big advertiser on ESPN's Monday and NBC's Sunday night lineups. "They have to be there because it's their No. 1 selling point," said Kirt Danner, VP-marketing at media buying firm RPA. "Sports is the HD game right now," he added, referring to high definition. With even more HD products to advertise, sports is still the arena for HD advertisers to play in.
And high definition is an investment that's paying off for networks, at least when it comes to sports. Buyers estimate that the amount of money HD advertising brings in offsets the cost of offering sports programming in HD.
There are a few question marks hanging over football this season. One is flexible scheduling, which allows NBC in the second half of the season to bolster its schedule with matchups of teams that are in playoff contention; the other is how the "Monday Night Football" franchise wil fare now that it has moved to cable (to ESPN from ABC). Additionally, improved teams in large markets such as New York, Washington, Dallas and Chicago may increase ratings.
ESPN touted that its preseason ratings are up 22% over last year's Sunday night preseason ratings, but most sports watchers caution that preseason ratings don't have much bearing on regular-season results.