NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Is prestige headed back to the Super Bowl?
One can make the argument, of course, that it's already there. The game is the preeminent event on the TV schedule each year. It routinely attracts the biggest audience for any televised sports match, even any TV show; it has increased its reach in the last two years; and it is considered so important by the advertisers that sponsor it that they craft special commercials aimed at sparking the biggest response from the crowds watching them on screen.
Yet, with the economy flailing in recent years, the caliber of marketer and marketing in the Super Bowl has declined. Gone for the last two airings have been FedEx Corp. and General Motors. Veteran Super Bowl advertiser PepsiCo sidelined its beverages for the most recent broadcast. In their place? Yes, Google bought an ad this past go-round, but the Super Bowl's ad ranks have also swelled with entries from direct-response advertiser Cash4Gold, which stepped forward in 2009, and 2010 newbies such as HomeAway, Skechers and advocacy organization Focus on the Family.
With marketers' insight into their finances more clear this year, hope has begun to bubble that a more venerated class of advertiser will return to the gridiron classic. "You will see a number of people back in the Super Bowl that you haven't seen in a few years," Jon Nesvig, president-sales, Fox Broadcasting Co., said in a brief conversation during the network's upfront party last week. Fox will air the Feb. 6, 2011, event from Arlington, Texas.
Mr. Nesvig has reason for optimism. Ad-sales executives from CBS, Turner, NBC and ESPN -- and Fox, too -- say advertiser interest in football telecasts is more intense in this current "upfront" market than in recent years. Automakers, with ad spending crimped by the economy, have begun to push more forcefully into events they believe make their ads hard to ignore. Live sports, which typically don't get watched days later on ad-skipping DVRs, have more cachet for advertisers than they might have had in the past.
And ad buyers on the other side of the desk back up the networks' view. "Some of the categories that have supported the NFL that have had some tough luck in the past year are coming back strong," said Jeff Gagne, VP-account director at Havas' MPG , who oversees national sports buying for the agency. Thanks to demand from automakers, he added, "I don't know if the market as a whole is moving, but those key positions [in broadcasts] are moving well in advance of previous years."
What's still unclear, though, is how much of the current interest in football's regular season will persist when it comes to more expensive playoff games, much less the unique -- and uniquely costly -- event that is the Super Bowl. "The automotive category seems to be back in full force," said another ad-buying executive. "Whether those conversations carry through from the regular season to post-season, I think, is still to be determined."
Still, this executive acknowledged, "I'm sure Fox is dealing with a totally different marketplace than CBS had to last year."
The picture is further clouded by a number of interesting transitions in NFL sponsors. Sprint ended a years-long NFL sponsorship earlier this year, and Verizon Communications now has a four-year deal with the league. Likewise, Samsung recently ended a broad NFL sponsorship deal. NFL sponsorships can sometimes lead to attachments to the Super Bowl.
If those advertisers who sat on the Super Bowl sidelines for the past year or two are getting back into the game, they aren't tipping their hand. A spokesman for FedEx said the company has "not made any decision yet." A GM spokeswoman said the large automaker is "still working on our plans. They are not finalized," and could not comment on future ad buys. A spokesman for Pepsi -Cola North America said the company was "too early" in its planning process to announce any decision about the Super Bowl for next year.
Getting some of these players back in the Super Bowl ad game would have larger ramifications for broadcast TV. "Those advertisers who don't use broadcast don't seem to have the level of sophistication and creative quality of those who use both cable and broadcast," Mr. Nesvig said during remarks at Fox's upfront presentation last week. "And weaker creative seems to impact the surrounding commercials." A larger handful of marketers in this year's game weren't regular national broadcast advertisers.
Ad fans will likely be able to tune in for a better Super Bowl picture after the networks conclude their annual "upfront" selling, during which they try to sell the bulk of their inventory for the coming TV season.
Of course, selling the first 50% to 60% of the Super Bowl is the easy part -- longtime participants such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and selected movie studios will want to secure the best ad positions in the first half of the game and elsewhere. Demand for remaining inventory in recent years has typically crested in September and October.