TV Upfront

Football Advertising Inventory Starts to Move Ahead of Upfront Market

Demand From Auto Driving Early Interest Even as NFL Season Is in Question

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The nation's big broadcast networks won't unveil their schedules for the 2011-2012 season for another two weeks, but several have already started to sell advertising in both NFL and college football telecasts slated to air in the fall, according to ad buyers familiar with the negotiations.

These buyers caution that football inventory isn't in danger of selling out immediately, but suggest certain types of marketers, particularly auto manufacturers, have begun to reserve ad time in big-ticket sports broadcasts. These pacts land ahead of TV's so-called "upfront" market, when the TV networks typically sell 75% to 80% of the ad inventory that accompanies their new season.

'Sunday Night Football'
'Sunday Night Football' Credit: AP

The news may raise eyebrows. After all, the National Football League is still in the midst of a major labor dispute, and there's no certainty the league's season will run as usual come autumn.

The condition has made some advertisers cautious. "The incumbents are moving as if it is business as usual," said one ad buyer. "The more transient advertisers are probably not jumping to the plate without a major 'out' clause, which the networks are probably not likely to offer up just yet." Indeed, said one buyer, some advertisers are turning to college football games as a hedge against the NFL season being truncated or cancelled outright.

But the desire to lock in attractive ad time before others do so is proving difficult to ignore. For years, ad inventory in sports events usually sold only after advertisers had decided upon schedules for prime-time entertaiment content. With ratings waning for typical broadcast fare, however, certain kinds of marketers have decided to move first to football, which still attracts outsized audiences. Viewers tend to watch the games live as they happen, and don't skip past the ads that appear during commercial breaks.

Several networks would stand to benefit from the interest in NFL. CBS and Fox regularly televise NFL games on Sunday afternoons. Walt Disney's ESPN broadcasts "Monday Night Football." NBC, which broadcasts the highly-rated "Sunday Night Football," has in the past established multi-year pacts with certain auto advertisers, meaning it would not necessarily be in negotiations with car makers for current football inventory, according to a person familar with the situation. Ad-sales executives from all the networks were not available for immediate comment.

Football moved in advance of the upfront last year as well, when automakers, eager to establish a new presence among consumers as they climbed back from the recession, moved aggressively to lock up ad spots that would reach big audiences.

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