Sports programming may be big buy in upfront

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Look for TV sports programming to help suffering TV sales organizations win ad commitments during next month's upfront if one or both of the expected writers' or actors' strikes occurs.

"Sports is going to be the first stuff to go in the upfront," said Karen Agresti, senior VP-director of local broadcast for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston. "You will see adult buys going heavily sports. That's a good chunk of the business."

Traditionally, sports isn't sold in the upfront. It is sold on its own schedule, depending on when a TV sport is available for sale-and virtually all of it is sold to advertisers targeting men in the 18-to-49 demographic. But should the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild/American Television & Radio Artists strikes occur, there will be an expected increase in rerun programming and reality fare from network, syndication and cable, leaving sports as a fresh programming alternative for advertisers.

mARKETERS TO MOVE TO SPORTS

Historically, sports attracts male viewers. But advertisers are anticipating that light sports viewers such as women would probably watch more sports TV programs in the aftermath of a walkout. Advertisers that target women only are still likely to stay away from most TV sports programming. But advertisers that include women in their wider adult target-in other words, the majority of primetime advertisers-are projected by analysts to move to sports.

At least one major media agency executive, who represents an advertiser in telecommunications, autos and other major categories, is already planning to include more sports in buys this coming year. "I'm planning for it and suggesting this for the client," he said.

Media-sales executives are also hoping media buyers will turn to sports in the event of strike. "Sports programming would be the only real winner," said Larry Novenstern, exec VP-sales and marketing for Sportvision, a sports-technology company, which sells the virtual "First down and 10" line in TV sports programming. Mr. Novenstern had been a longtime major sports buyer for Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, for clients such as Pepsi-Cola Co., Visa USA and Federal Express.

All this is good news for TV sports programming, which has seen ratings fall off in recent years, including those of the NBA, Major League Baseball, NFL, National Hockey League and the Olympic Games.

A lift in sports sales would also help TV sales organizations, some of which are anticipating major rollback in ad dollars overall for the first time in a decade. Estimates are that last year's $7.9 billion upfront could sink to as low as $7.3 billion or $7.4 billion. Analysts are also expecting cost per thousand to drop anywhere from 5% to 15% on average.

If the strike lasts five months or more, it could benefit NBC's "2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games" broadcast scheduled for February 2002. Generally, Olympic broadcasts score well in primetime with all adult viewers-and especially women viewers.

OLYMPICS MAY BENEFIT

"Winter Olympics delivers more women than men," said Mr. Novenstern. "If the Olympics are hanging out [for sale] in the the upfront, and there's potential for a writer strike, maybe NBC tries to sell it a little cheaper to get their base a little bit higher."

NBC didn't return phone calls for comment. But the network has had a slow time selling the Salt Lake City games so far, reaching only 70% of its inventory goal. "We have quite a bit more to go," NBC President Robert Wright acknowledged last week on (AdAge.com). "It's slower than we would like. There's no question about that."

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