Super Bowl Ad Talks Already Under Way With NBC

Network Suggests Cost of 30-Second Spot Worth as Much as $3.5M

By Published on . 3

NBC has been quietly testing whether it can command as much as $3.5 million for 30 seconds of commercial time during its broadcast of next year's Super Bowl, which would be a record-setting price for advertising in the gridiron classic.

NBC has been entertaining discussions with advertisers and media agencies about Super Bowl XLVI, slated to be broadcast from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Feb. 5, 2012. Interest in the game has been robust, spurred further by Fox's ability to sell out its broadcast of Super Bowl XLV all the way back in October. Indeed, NBC has been holding talks with potential advertisers since early fall, according to one ad buyer familiar with the conversations.

While the price of a Super Bowl commercial can vary depending on the advertiser involved and at what time during the game they're buying a spot, NBC in some cases has brassily suggested that 30 seconds of ad time during the game is worth north of $3 million and as much as $3.5 million, according to ad buyers. Anything in that range would represent a new high for Super Bowl inventory, which has hit $3 million in recent years but stayed at or below that level while the recent recession drew marketers' purse strings tight.

An NBC Sports spokesman said ad-sales executives were not available for comment. Speaking during a recent conference held by the Association for National Advertisers, Marianne Gambelli, president-ad sales for NBC, said the network would likely seek to increase the prices Fox took in for the 2011 Super Bowl. Fox was seeking between $2.8 million and $3 million for 30 seconds of ad time this year.

Not everyone would have to pay the high-sticker price. Advertisers who have a pre-existing relationship with NBC or who may be looking to augment a larger package of sports advertising inventory with the network would likely not pay top cost.

Top clients would also likely get a discount. Anheuser-Busch InBev has a multi-year Super Bowl sponsorship; as one of the top buyers of advertising in the event, the company is known to pay less than the going rate for inventory in the event. And there's always location, meaning the stage of the game in which a spot runs: Super Bowl ad prices often slump for less-desirable inventory that remains available late in the process, particularly slots in the fourth quarter.

Interest in the Super Bowl has always been high, but it has intensified in recent years as marketers chase viewers who watch events -- and the ads supporting them -- live and in a mass that is no longer readily achieved by most ordinary broadcast TV programming. Thanks to new technology, consumers are increasingly watching their favorite TV shows with different niche behaviors, whether they include playing programs back on a DVR, ordering them up on-demand, or viewing them on a portable media device or through streaming video. When it comes to the Super Bowl, however, the bulk of the audience tunes in to the venerable boob-tube en masse.

Fox's broadcast of the Super Bowl this year became the most-watched U.S. broadcast of all time, according to Nielsen, having reached more than 111 million U.S. viewers. CBS's broadcast of the game in 2010 held that honor for just a year, having reached around 106.5 U.S. million viewers. Prior to the 2010 Super Bowl broadcast, CBS's 1983 broadcast of the series finale of "M*A*S*H" held the record for the country's most-watched TV program of all time.

Super Bowl ad prices typically rise $100,000 or $200,000 or each year, depending on the performance of the most-recent broadcast. NBC's proposal of a possible hike of $500,000, however, is bold. For one thing, the NFL is in the midst of labor discussions that could leave the U.S. without a football season come autumn.

The economy can also wreak havoc on the process. In 2008, with months to go before its 2009 game-day broadcast, NBC publicly suggested a 30-second ad in the Super Bowl was worth at least $3 million. Yet when the recession hit later that year, NBC ran into headwinds and faced heady challenges selling its remaining inventory.

NBC's 2009 broadcast of the Super Bowl was its first since the end of the 1997 season. Next year, its broadcast of the Super Bowl will be its first under new ownership. Comcast Corp. earlier this year closed its deal to acquire a majority stake in NBC Universal, and recent comments by Steve Burke, the new chief executive of NBCU, suggest the company expects to make a profit off sporting events. Rights fees for major sports contests have grown significantly in recent years, to the point when many networks are casting about to find ways to make the economics of their broadcasts of such marquee match-ups more favorable.

NBC's "Sunday Night Football" broadcasts are some of the highest-rated on TV -- and some of the most expensive places in which marketers can advertise on broadcast TV.

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