Fox's response to the depressing ad market: It's going to stage a parade.
Super Bowl XXXVI, set for Jan. 27, will probably see average prices drop to just below $2 million for a 30-second spot, down from $2.05 million for last January's game, according to media executives' estimates. The average for last January's game was down slightly from the $2.1 million average for January 2000, according to Advertising Age research.
Since the 1967 debut of what grew into advertising's signature event, the only other year-over-year decline came in 1971.
Mardi Gras parade
In a bid to attract viewers and advertisers, News Corp.'s Fox will produce pre-game festivities including a first-ever Super Bowl parade, according to two media executives familiar with the plans. The parade will run from the downtown of host city New Orleans to the Superdome, and Fox hopes to capitalize that this year Super Bowl Sunday falls on the first day of Mardi Gras season.
Programming analysts said the parade could become a major event, somewhat like the way the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, Calif., is linked with the college football Rose Bowl.
Fox intends to sell parade sponsorships to advertisers, the media executives said. Fox will cut back on the usual pre-game package of informational and entertainment programming.
Fox executives would not comment on the parade, game ad sales or prices.
50% of spots sold
So far, about 50% of the 59 Super Bowl commercials have been sold, according to industry estimates. This includes eight 30-second spots sold to perennial Super Bowl advertiser Anheuser-Busch Cos., which makes multiyear regular season and Super Bowl deals with all NFL networks. Another 15 to 16 spots have gone to the clients of Omnicom Group media agency OMD USA, which has a roster of veteran Super Bowl advertisers including PepsiCo's Pepsi-Cola Co. and Frito-Lay, Cingular Wireless, Fedex, Universal Pictures and Visa.
"Half [sold] is nowhere," said Tim Spengler, executive vice president of national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media North America, Los Angeles. "There is still a long way to go."
Media executives estimate advertisers that bought in early inked low-rate deals at $1.7 million to $1.9 million per spot. The game's big advertisers typically strike cheap deals because they buy a number of Super Bowl spots and advertise heavily during the regular NFL season.
Advertisers that strike deals for fewer spots will likely pay more -- but not the $2.4 million to $2.5 million Super Bowl price tag floated by Fox. That asking price is about even with what CBS sought for last January's game, though CBS's eventual average price became an estimated $2.05 million.
The coming game's average price "is going to be less" than January 2001, predicted Mr. Spengler. The 2001 game came just as the ad market was weakening, and without the dot-coms that inflated 2000's pricing.
January's game could be tougher for Fox, said media executives. Not only is Fox selling in a weak ad market, but also the Super Bowl comes a week before NBC's Salt Lake City Olympics, which will compete for advertiser dollars.
On the positive side, Fox could make gains in the pre-game -- a traditional venue networks use to generate revenue.
Still, Fox might not be overly focused on Super Bowl pricing, for it also needs to look at the overall picture of regular season NFL games. Fox might, therefore, give a little on Super Bowl pricing if an advertiser buys more commercial time in the regular season.
"The key isn't the Super Bowl; it's the regular season," said Jerry Solomon, a former Anheuser-Busch media executive.
The NFL's regular season is already having its jitters as prices for 30-second spots on Fox, Viacom's CBS and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and ESPN are down anywhere from 5% to 15% vs. a year ago, according to media executives.
ABC's Monday Night Football, which had garnered unit prices in the $350,000 to $375,000 range, has fallen to the low $300,000 range. Pricing is said to be around $175,000 to $225,000 on Fox and a bit lower for a spot on CBS; ESPN pricing ranges from $90,000 to $120,000.
Joe Abruzzese, CBS president of advertising sales, said prices for NFL spots on his network this fall are up, not down. He also said the network's NFL revenue will be up. "We replaced so many advertisers [with higher paying advertisers]," he said. "We also have an extra game this year."
An ESPN/ABC executive said Monday Night Football is better sold now than this time last year -- in part because some inventory was sold in conjunction with the ABC prime-time upfront. The executive wouldn't discuss pricing on Monday Night Football or Sunday Night Football.
Like the TV upfront market (time bought in advance of the TV season), NFL broadcast ad sales are suffering from the economic slump. "It's pretty weak," said Stacey Shepartin, senior vice president of national broadcast at Interpublic's Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston.
Typically by June, most NFL upfront deals are done. But one week before the season starts, media buyers say virtually the whole season appears wide open in commercial availability.
"It's wild," said Geoff Robison, senior vice president and director of national broadcast for Palisades Media Group, Santa Monica, Calif. "The market is really slow."