Season Hasn't Kicked Off, but Nets Are Already Scoring Big With NFL

Wide Range of Marketers Flock to ESPN, Others to Nab Young-Male Eyeballs

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On-air inventory for this fall's NFL season is shaping up to look a lot like Super Bowl tickets: scarce and pricey.
ESPN's ad chief, Ed Erhardt
ESPN's ad chief, Ed Erhardt Credit: Steve Fenn

In this year's upfront, marketers paid premium prices for prime football ad time, with cost-per-thousand-viewer rate increases as high as 25% on programs such as NBC's "Sunday Night Football." ESPN's ad chief, Ed Erhardt, is also reporting "extremely limited inventory" going into the second season; his network has carried "Monday Night Football," which kicks off Sept. 10. "We're better sold this year than we were last year, and last year we were really well sold," he claimed.

Why all the increased fighting for the pigskin? It could be because football is that rare brand of programming proven to be almost entirely "TiVo-proof," so marketers know their ads are being seen either the moment they air or by night's end on DVR. Plus, several key categories -- such as movies and retail -- tend to favor doing business on the old Nielsen standard of program ratings, a metric with which ESPN was able to negotiate exclusively this year.

Guy brands
And with the Disney-owned network's core demo of young men turning out in droves to watch -- a record-breaking cable audience of 8.1 million viewers tuned in to "Monday Night Football" last October -- the urgency for any male-targeted brand to be there is undeniable.

For key players such as brewer Miller, the game strategy is to play defensively but remain open. "Football is a very competitive time of year for beer marketers. You need to have a good brand and the right partners," said Peter Marino, a Miller spokesman. Though the beer brand buys spots across all the NFL-airing networks -- Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC -- Miller will spend the bulk of its football money with ESPN this season for a wide-ranging multiplatform deal, sponsoring everything from the Monday-night kick-off to "Pigskin Pick 'Em" on ESPN.com to a Spanish-language tie-in on ESPN Deportes.

Not that ESPN has a lock on all the football deals, as each of the networks has its own unique upfront offering for media buyers. NBC has the Sunday-night package; Fox and CBS each offer weekend packages; and ABC has a Saturday-night college football offering that Mr. Erhardt can bundle with "Monday Night Football" on ESPN. As John Miles, director-investments at MediaCom puts it, "There may be aggregators of GRPs in that particular area, but they all stand out."
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