Who Still Wants a Spot in the Big Game?

NBC Has Commanded $3 Million Per Ad, but Economy May Make It Tough to Unload Remaining Inventory

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Where NBC was once crowing about how much it had sold for Super Bowl XLIII, it now finds itself cheerleading advertisers into buying the last block of spots.

Site of Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa
Super Bowl XLIII will be broadcast by NBC on Feb. 1 from Tampa Bay.
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Nearly three months ago, coming off the fabulous ratings success of the Olympics, the Peacock boldly asserted that it could get as much as $3 million for a 30-second spot in the Super Bowl. The strategy largely worked: NBC said in mid-September that it had already sold more than 80% of its spots in the big game. Now that the economy has taken a drastic turn for the worse, the network may have to change its strategy to unload the remaining inventory.

NBC has sold more than 85% of its available inventory for Super Bowl XLIII, which will be broadcast Feb. 1 from Tampa Bay. In an interview with Ad Age in September, Seth Winter, senior VP-NBC Sports and Olympics sales and marketing, said "about a dozen or so" marketers had agreed to plunk down $3 million per ad. Media buyers report that the network has indicated it has only eight to 10 30-second spots left to sell, though the more skeptical among them think that number could be as high as 14.

Now the network, which has not broadcast a Super Bowl in 11 years, faces a dilemma: Can it push forward and secure what buyers say it's seeking -- $2.8 million to $3 million a spot -- or will it have to start lowering the price to get others onboard, risking the wrath of advertisers who have already agreed to higher prices?

"The price typically upticks a little bit [each year], and people obviously don't like hearing there's a fire sale," said one media buyer. "When you get pushed so hard [to pay a big price], it's the last thing you want to hear."

Solid footing
The network remains in active conversations with numerous companies, a person familiar with the situation said, adding that NBC is not discounting prices, and the network is pacing 10% ahead of Super Bowl sales in years past. If NBC has only eight spots left to sell, it's in a good position with about two months left to go before kickoff.

According to media buyers, Super Bowl ad sales typically go down to the wire, with advertisers hoping to get bargain prices the longer they wait. Usually what's left is ad time located deep in the second half, making it easier for a network to explain any price drop to a disgruntled client.

If NBC were to start discounting, it would mark a change in direction from what buyers say was a very aggressive stance coming out of the upfront earlier this year. In fact, NBC has talked about raising the price of Super Bowl inventory as supply diminishes, not lowering it. "Why wouldn't you raise your price? Why would you lower it? I don't quite understand that theory of inventory," Mr. Winter said in September.

An NBC Sports spokesman said Mr. Winter was unavailable for comment last week.

In that earlier interview, Mr. Winter indicated that auto marketers and movie studios were driving sales. Buyers suggested that movie studios will be at least as strong as they were in the last game, when movie ads took up four minutes and 15 seconds of advertising, according to Nielsen, compared with less than two minutes in the 2007 contest.

Traditional advertisers
Automakers accounted for five and a half minutes in 2008. Media buyers suggested that few if any domestic manufacturers will appear in the next game, owing to the financial woes plaguing Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. GM has already said it won't run any ads in the game.

The usual candidates have already signed up. Anheuser-Busch is primed to show as many as five minutes of ads, according to A-B Chief Creative Officer Bob Lachky. PepsiCo is still deciding which of its many beverage brands will get the Super Bowl spotlight. Coca-Cola is onboard, as are jobs sites CareerBuilder and Monster. Mars' Pedigree dog food will run an ad in the game for the first time.

Meanwhile, some big marketers are still sniffing around -- or playing coy. McDonald's Corp. is considering running an ad during the Super Bowl or perhaps following a more typical strategy and advertising during the pregame show, according to a person familiar with the situation. Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for the company, said it's "too early to speculate about whether we will or will not be involved" in either portion of the program. Sprint has plenty of onsite Super Bowl-related promotions set, but company spokesman Dave Mellin said they "don't know yet" when it comes to TV commercials. News Corp. movie studio 20th Century Fox sounded a similar tone; spokesman Chris Petrikin said, "It's too early for us to say right now."

No one discounts the power of an ad in the Super Bowl -- the 2008 event reached an average audience of 97.5 million people in the U.S. But most caution that the game is not a place for a casual appearance. The money is best spent when marketers have new products or campaigns to launch or something important or newsworthy to tell consumers.

That said, anyone with something really entertaining can also get some quick publicity. "The playing field is wide open for [a marketer] to try and fill it," said Jeff Gagne, VP-account director at MPG, who oversees sports buying for the Havas media buyer.

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