AUTO INSURER SET TO INK SUPER BOWL HALFTIME CONTRACT: PROGRESSIVE WILL TAKE OVER NFL'S HIGH-PROFILE ROLE FROM CRUISE LINE

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Super Bowl XXXIII will feature at least one Cinderella story: little-known Progressive Insurance is finalizing a $5 million-plus deal to sponsor the halftime show.

The auto insurance marketer would replace Royal Caribbean International as sponsor of the show, again being produced by Radio City Music Hall Productions.

The deal is being made with the National Football League, but requires a media buy on Fox, which is broadcasting Super Bowl XXXIII from Miami's Pro Player Stadium on Jan. 31. The Fox portion may include buys on regular season NFL broadcasts and other pro-gramming.

A BIGGER IMPACT

Progressive, the nation's fifth-largest auto insurance company, wants to make a bigger impact with consumers. It began TV advertising five years ago, in spot markets. Ads are via Arnell Group, New York.

Last year, Progressive spent $9.6 million on measured media, almost all of it in spot TV, according to Competitive Media Reporting. But through May of this year, it has spent $7.3 million on spot TV.

"We are continuously looking for ways to make more people aware of Progressive," said a spokeswoman, who acknowledged the company is in talks for the sponsorship.

The NFL declined to comment, while Fox NFL sales executives did not return calls by press time. Executives familiar with the deal said Progressive also will become an NFL sponsor.

Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. held the Super Bowl halftime spon-sorship for two years before ceding it to Royal Caribbean because of the escalating cost of Super Bowl time. Higher pricing also drove Royal Caribbean to abandon the sponsorship after one year.

Fox has aggressive plans to make the coming Super Bowl Sunday an all-day event, with related pro-gramming beginning in the morning. Fox is charging an estimated $1.6 million per spot in the game, up 23% from last year, though Anheuser-Busch is said to have anted-up $2 million each for several :30s during the game. Some 70% of the time is already sold.

AD INCREASES FOR NFL

The NFL's four TV partners -- ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN -- kicked off the first year of their new six-year, $17.6 billion contracts last weekend. Analysts had predicted an increase in ad rates of 20% to 25%, but media buyers report they're paying only 8% to 10% more than last year.

Networks wouldn't comment on their pricing. ESPN is said to be charging $100,000 a unit, a 5% increase, and has sold 80% of the inventory on its 17 games.

The networks don't seem too concerned about the prospect of losing money on the NFL, since the broadcasts strengthen affiliates and serve as promotional platforms for other programming. That's not to say they won't try hard to draw more viewers to their telecasts.

"This is our biggest push since we first got the NFL. Our commitment to allocating on-air inventory and off-channel spending is the biggest since 1994," said Neal Tiles, senior VP-marketing at Fox Sports.

Fox has lined up A-B; E&J Gallo Winery; Mailboxes, Etc.; Miller Brewing Co.; and Southwest Airlines for its push, swapping off-channel support in some cases for integration into Fox's pre-game show. Since the new NFL TV deals prohibit networks from selling in-game enhancements, the nets have increasingly commercialized shoulder programming.

GALLO SWEEPSTAKES

Gallo last weekend began a four-week watch-and-win sweepstakes on "Fox NFL Sunday." Mailboxes, Etc. has again bought a spot on the Super Bowl it will turn over to a small business, but this year it will support with a September in-store promotion that plugs Fox. Southwest will conduct trivia contests during September flights, with "Fox Super Bowl XXXIII" caps as prizes.

In October and November, Miller will support its "Miller Lite Really, Really Good Football Team" sweepstakes with buys on Fox NFL games and a watch-and-win element on "Fox NFL Sunday." A-B and Fox are working cross-promotional plans for the month leading up to the Super Bowl broadcast, on which A-B is the sole beer advertiser.

Mr. Tiles said Fox began its own on-air promotion of the NFL much earlier than usual. A new campaign that will carry through the season launched last week. Created by Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco, the spots were shot by the cinematographer of "Titanic" and have the "Fox NFL Sunday" hosts traveling from game to game by blimp.

Contributing: James B. Arndorfer

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