Despite COVID-19 ravaging the National Football League this week, CBS has still been able to offload a large part of its Super Bowl ad inventory.
The eye network is about 75% to 80% sold out of commercial time in Super Bowl LV, with about eight to 10 spots left, according to media buyers and people familiar with negotiations. Historically, those last handful of spots are typically the hardest to offload.
Multiple NFL teams’ rosters this week were upended thanks to an uptick in COVID cases, resulting in the postponement of the Thanksgiving night game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the San Francisco 49ers finding a new place to play, and the NFL closing facilities for a few days to help get cases under control.
As the NFL grapples with these issues, buyers say there is a contingency plan in place to play the Super Bowl later in February if necessary. While Super Bowl LV is slated to air on CBS on Feb. 7, there is a makeup date of Feb. 28, according to media buyers.
An NFL spokesman in an email stated that "we are focused on concluding the 256 regular-season games within our 17 week-schedule followed by the playoffs culminating with fans in the stands in Tampa on Feb. 7 for the Super Bowl." He added that "we have been successful in this unprecedented year and are on the path to completing the season on time. We’ve also been flexible and adaptable and have approval on playing games in an 18th week in the event we need to and also re-imaging the Pro Bowl." (The league canceled the Pro Bowl game, and will instead hold it virtually via Electronic Arts’ “Madden NFL 21” video game.)
A potential shift in timing could make it difficult for Super Bowl advertisers to plan creative, but for the most part it isn’t deterring brands from making commitments.
While CBS is lagging behind Fox’s sell out levels of the 2020 game – they announced they were sold out of ad inventory before Thanksgiving – the eye network is currently ahead of where they were when they last aired the game in 2019.
The network is currently sold out of all slots in the first quarter, all A positions (the first slot in a commercial break) and all Z positions (the last spot in a commercial break) in the first-half of the game, according to multiple buyers.
Right now, it seems brands are more focused on what tone they should strike in their Super Bowl ads rather than debating whether or not they should buy air time. But that could change if COVID accelerates further and causes a bigger economic impact.
And for some, the current upswing in cases is enough to leave them on the sideline.
Hyundai, which has advertised in the game 12 of the past 13 years, has yet to make a buy. “We are still waiting to decide, it’s a little too fluid,” says Angela Zepeda, chief marketing officer at Hyundai Motor America. She referenced the Thanksgiving night game cancelation as an example of how much things are in flux. “We’ve always been in it and have been firmly in it, but this is different time in a different year and I am being overly thoughtful,” she said. Asked how the brand would deal with the make-up date, she said: “I think it would just give us more time to make a decision.”
One way to help calm any fears would be if the NFL decided to move to a bubble environment in order to ensure the playoffs and Super Bowl can be played, according to one buyer. Though the NFL from the onset said they would not go into a bubble.
Some regular Super Bowl advertisers have not yet shown their hand. Kia, which regularly appears in the game, is still noncommittal, at least publicly. The brand is planning a big marketing splash for New Year’s Eve, but when asked about the Super Bowl, Russell Wager, director of marketing operations for Kia Motors America, would only say, “One way or another we will be in or around the Super Bowl.”
The auto category, which is generally a large player in the Super Bowl, is expected to be lighter, according to one media buyer. Other hard-hit categories in the pandemic like travel and movie studios are also expected to have a smaller presence in the Big Game.
For those businesses that are being challenged, they could face scrutiny for being in such a high-ticket event as they layoff staffers, even if such marketing could help them regain their footing, the buyer says.
Contributing: E.J. Schultz