NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- At a time when advertisers approach some broadcast TV buying with caution, they are showing a very healthy interest in one of its most venerable (and pricey) attractions: A good ol' football game.
Ad-sales activity for NFL and college games is more robust than expected, according to sales executives at several networks. That's not to say that prices aren't lower than last year or that the cost of reaching a thousand viewers hasn't declined, but the dips and rollbacks aren't as severe as they are for traditional prime-time programming.
"I don't think this year will be one of our record years," said Seth Winter, senior VP-NBC sports and Olympics sales and marketing. "But I think it will be better than we had anticipated. We see signs of restored confidence and willingness to invest."
While ratings for many popular TV options have eroded for years, football -- at least initially this season -- is moving in the opposite direction, particularly as cash-strapped consumers can't afford the prices at the stadium and live sports events still draw big audiences unwilling to wait for a TiVo replay of their chosen game.
At CBS, which is selling the Super Bowl as well as inventory for NFL and college football, "We still have a fair amount of the fourth quarter to write. September is pretty well sold for NFL," said John Bogusz, CBS's exec VP-sports sales and marketing. "In college football, it is extremely tight."
Marketers spent approximately $2.66 billion on national NFL-related TV broadcasts between September, 2008 and February, 2009, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Even General Motors has been more active than expected in the market for ad time during NFL contests, several network ad-sales executives said -- surprising, given the corporate turmoil the company has suffered in recent months. "The brand affiliation is definitely there, and there is a commitment to have a good presence" in NFL games, said GM spokeswoman Kelly Cusinato. A spokeswoman for GM's GMC division, Dayna Hart, said GMC has "a significant media commitment" to NFL with ESPN Monday Night Football only, which includes a "nice" digital commitment comprising online and mobile promotion as well.
Still, with TV networks holding back more ad inventory for scatter, sports sellers have more time to sell than they'd like, one media buyer suggested. "There was a resetting of the NFL marketplace this year," said one buying executive, with CPMs down in the low-to-mid-single-digit percentage range. "The networks are holding out for scatter. I think they're sitting with a bunch of inventory. Is there enough out there in the marketplace to make it up in the short term? I don't see how there is."
Some ad categories that traditionally support football every year are likely to be spending less than in years past. Financial-services and auto marketers spent noticeably less in the upfront and the recent demise of Circuit City probably means less consumer-electronics ad dollars this season. And yet, some ad-sales executives note marketers such as Walmart coming into the market, sometimes with football-themed creative.
Marketers typically pay a premium for NFL ad inventory over the cost of a spot in prime time, but that gap has narrowed this year due to the economy, according to buyers and ad-sales executives. "The difference between regular prime time and football is not as great as it was," said Larry Novenstern, exec VP-director of national and local broadcast at Publicis Groupe's Optimedia. "Once it becomes a better priced option, people are definitely going to flock to it."
Indeed, ratings have been eyebrow-raising. NBC notched a stunning 20.9 million viewers for its recent Thursday kickoff broadcast of a game between the Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Nielsen, compared with around 13.5 million for the kickoff broadcast in 2008. Likewise, NBC's first "Sunday Night Football" telecast reached 21.1 million, compared with around 18.4 million a year earlier. The first game telecast in ESPN's first "Monday Night Football" broadcast of the season reached 14 million, Nielsen said, compared with 12.5 million. Fox's regional and national coverage has also seen noticeable audience increases.
Money-strapped consumers still have a hankering for quality entertainment that doesn't require them to shell out big bucks. "In tough times of all kinds (including bad economies) people seek affiliation as a reinforcing social structure," said Thomas Boyd, a professor of marketing at California State University, Fullerton, in an e-mail interview. "Of course, advertising appeals need to relate to relevant consumer values and an economic crisis can shift consumers' emphasis from things like status and prestige, self-actualization, and achievement, to values such as close family ties, being a good parent, loyalty."
Ad sales for the Super Bowl appear to be moving more briskly than anticipated, with CBS selling about 70% of its inventory. Prime positions have been sold for between $2.5 million and $3 million, according to one person familiar with the deals. Automaker Hyundai recently told Advertising Age it had decided to buy two spots in next February's broadcast of Super Bowl XLIV. The company joins a roster that now includes Careerbuilder, InBev's Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and GoDaddy.com. Bridgestone will again be the half-time sponsor for the game, and as part of the deal it negotiated gets two 30-second spots in the game.
In a sign of how challenging the climate is, however, at this time last year, NBC had sold more than 80% of its inventory after aggressively making the case that a 30-second spot in the game was worth a record $3 million. Indeed, in 2007, News Corp.'s Fox was nearly sold out of inventory by late October.
One ad executive suggests the audience phenomenon is boosted by the fact that sports transfers well to other media. ESPN has also seen audiences flock to mobile media to consume coverage, said Ed Erhardt, president-customer marketing and sales at the Walt Disney-owned sports media outlet. "What's driving this usage thing now is more lifestyle than platform," he said. "For example, we're seeing mobile usage on a Saturday afternoon tends to be as high if not higher than our computer usage." Even so, the networks have quite a ways to go before they hit the metaphorical end-zone early next year.
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Contributing: Rupal Parekh