But sports marketers and media sales executives say the more likely scenario is that sellers will find themselves fighting fiercely over table scraps.
Among the likely winners: the Winter Olympic games, which are more than 90% sold and have gotten a bounce from the nation's patriotic fervor. Among those likely to struggle: soccer's quadrennial World Cup, as well as regular-season hockey and basketball games.
"This is a case of where we have to borrow from Peter to pay Paul," said the head of marketing for a leading technology company. "You can't be in everything."
Monster.com illustrates the point. The employment Web site built its brand image with its critically acclaimed "When I Grow Up ..." ads in Super Bowl XXXIV. Yet for Fox's Super Bowl XXXVI broadcast on Feb. 3, Monster.com might not even make an appearance after shelling out $10 million dollars for an Olympic sponsorship.
Even with Super Bowl ad rates dropping for the second consecutive year, to an estimated average $1.9 million for a 30-second spot, Monster.com is delaying its decision. It hopes News Corp.'s Fox will fall to around $1.5 million. Several other Super Bowl advertisers from last year, including Cingular Wireless and Volkswagen AG, have already taken a pass on the 2002 game.
"In general, I look at these event-type advertising [opportunities] and ask if they're going to bring the market back. I don't think so," said Peter Blacklow, VP-marketing for Monster.com.
Visa USA, an Olympic sponsor, provides further evidence that marketers are not necessarily expanding budgets. "We are cutting everywhere we can, especially in the first quarter," said an executive close to that company. Visa will advertise in the Super Bowl, but not in pre-game programming.
As one media buyer noted, "There's no way every major sports advertiser can be involved in every major event."
Starting on New Year's Day, the 2002 calendar is jam-packed. College football's Bowl Championship Series on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC features four games, including the national championship Rose Bowl. It is 90% sold, according to Edward Erhardt, president of customer marketing and sales for ESPN/ABC Sports.
The calendar continues with National Football League post-season, the Winter Olympics, the All-Star games in the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association, the NCAA college basketball tournament and runs all the way through the end of Soccer's World Cup on June 30.
That event, to be aired on ABC, was mentioned by several executives as one that might have a hard time attracting ad dollars. "World Cup will be a very difficult sell this year," said one TV sales executive. "It's coming from Korea and in the U.S. will be on tape delay."
Though ratings for both the NHL and NBA All-Star games have declined in recent years, executives at both leagues insisted they are safe for 2002 because of multi-year commitments from marketers. The NHL All-Star broadcasts on ABC are 70% sold, Mr. Erhardt said, on pace with last year.
"It's cluttered," said Andrew Judelson, VP-marketing for the NHL, "but you have to find a way to break through the clutter."