Sports: NBC packages NBA playoff for payoff

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A hobbled Michael Jordan won't provide help, so NBC found another way to give sales of the NBA playoffs a lift: using its desirable prime-time lineup in package deals with the ratings-challenged NBA.

Though not an absolute, the General Electric network is making purchasing time on the NBA playoffs a price of entry if an advertiser hopes to launch a campaign on its prime-time schedule. The strategy has legs because there is a drought of available network prime-time inventory with Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and News Corp.'s Fox largely sold-out due to a flood of make-goods owed advertisers.

At the same time, NBC remains the top-rated network among the coveted 18-to-49-year-old demographic and has some spots available, making it a Valhalla for advertisers these days.

"They're leveraging the fact that they have prime-time availabilities to help their NBA sales," said one media buyer. The buyer described conversations with NBC as full of notions such as: "You pick up a couple of units on the NBA and I'll be very kind to you in prime time." With second-quarter scatter pricing as high as 15% to 20% over last year's prime-time upfront pricing, by adding the NBA to their buy marketers can lower overall cost per thousand viewers.

turnabout

The NBA playoffs, which begin April 20, aren't the only sports property to get a jolt from the scarcity of network inventory. So has NBC's Triple Crown and Fox's Nascar, both of which are near sellouts. That's a turnabout from last year when the oversupply of sports programming threatened to drive prices down on all the networks (AA, Dec. 12).

"It's a trickle-down effect," said Larry Novernstern, senior VP-director of national broadcast for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch, New York. "There's got to be spillover."

Pricing has also benefited: Executives said NBC is in the $250,000-plus range in the Triple Crown's Kentucky Derby for a 30-second spot, where the bulk of the broadcast is pre- and post-race coverage since the event itself is a quick lap around the track. "Ridiculously [high] priced" is how the media buyer described it.

Ad costs for the NBA conference finals and league finals are also robust, in the $300,000 and $400,000-$500,000 range, respectively. One executive said pricing for the finals has climbed 5% in price from last year's finals.

An NBC Sports spokesman declined to comment on any aspect of its sports pricing.

Another reason NBC may be employing the prime-time leveraging strategy is the network loses the NBA in June to Disney's ABC/ESPN. That means it has less incentive to make enticing long-term deals with NBA advertisers.

Of course, the network ad-space shortage is not the only factor driving NBA playoff sales. NBA conference-finals sales typically benefit from taking place when networks begin to run repeats as the summer begins. In particular, movie studios use the playoffs to promote their would-be summer blockbusters.

"The NBA, especially with movie studios, cleans up as the only original programming [in May] with double-digit male ratings," said Steve Siskind, senior VP-media and co-op advertising for News Corp.'s Fox Filmed Entertainment.

"[The NBA's] a little bit tainted because the ratings have been down, but especially this time of year when you get into the playoffs it's still a great property," said a media buyer who has bought NBA time.

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