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In an Extraordinarily Tough Year for Ad Sales, The NFL Scores a Touchdown; Plus the NFL Network’s Way to Engage Those Working at Media Agencies

Aug 28, 2009  •  Post A Comment

By John Consoli
Special to TVWeek

With two weeks to go until the regular season opening weekend, ESPN has already sold out its September and October inventory for Monday Night Football, and the other networks are actively writing business.

“The television football marketplace in general, both pro and college, is very vibrant,” said Ed Erhardt, president, ESPN Customer Marketing & Sales.

While Erhardt would not discuss pricing, sources familiar with negotiations between the networks and the media agencies said NFL commercial inventory was selling on average at cost per thousand rates just a percentage point below last year for most of the networks.

And college inventory was actually getting better CPMs: low-to-mid single digit increases over last year.

Fears that the sagging economy and its negative impact on the auto business was going to put a dent in NFL sales have not materialized.

“Our auto sales for NFL have held up well,” Erhardt said, echoing what other networks carrying the NFL said. “We have done business with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, and most of the foreign automakers are also in, including BMW, not a traditional football advertiser.”

Erhardt said while the financial category has been “dicey,” EPSN has seen ad growth for its football telecasts in categories like fast food restaurants, casual dining restaurants, insurance and men’s grooming. He said Gillette will be advertising six brands, several in men’s grooming.

“The NFL marketplace moved later this year, but right now it is very active and we have closed some major deals with big media agencies,” said John Bogusz, CBS executive vp for sports sales and marketing.

While Bogusz would not identify the agencies, sources said they include GroupM and OMD, the latter which also reportedly finalized its Super Bowl XLIV buys with CBS.

OMD has traditional had a sizable number of clients in the Super Bowl each year.

While no Super Bowl advertisers were named, OMD represents traditional Super Bowl clients like Pepsi, Fed Ex and Visa, among others. Neither agency returned requests for comment.

Bogusz said CBS is also in active negotiations with several other major media agencies for both regular season and the Super Bowl.

Tony Taranto, senior vp of NFL sales for CBS, said the network has sold out all six of its advertiser entitlements for Super Bowl pre-game coverage. The entitlements are presenting sponsorships of each half hour or hour blocks of coverage.

“Everyone wants to focus on just the in-game spots but we look at the entire Super Bowl day’s coverage, not just the game,” Taranto said. “Some of these ancillary audiences for our pre-game coverage are huge. Between 5 p.m. and the start of the game, ratings can be in the 16 range.”

While ESPN is sold out for the first two months of the NFL season, the network does have the least inventory to sell, although Erhardt says that’s what makes it more valuable to advertisers.

Under its TV rights agreement with the NFL, ESPN has 43 in game ad units to sell, compared to 63 for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, and between 90-120 for Fox and CBS, which air one national game each Sunday, along with regional telecasts. So the available supply of units for each network is different.

Fox sales execs were not available for comment, but sources familiar with Fox’s negotiations said that between multi-year deals already in place for its NFL telecasts, and some early deals the network did prior to the start of the upfront, Fox began its NFL upfront more than 30 percent sold.

Strong categories for Fox’s NFL telecasts for the upcoming season, according to sources, are fast food, wireless, and retail, among others.

NFL Network, another player in the NFL TV marketplace, has also been busy the past few weeks, although its first televised game is not until Nov. 12. NFL network will televise eight national games this year, most of them on Thursday nights.

Dave Pattillo, national sales manager for NFL Network, said Sears will be back as the network’s pre-game show sponsor, and Lexus has been signed up as pre-kick show sponsor, which will air from 8-8:15 p.m. He said he expects Sprint to be back as the halftime show sponsor, and the network is talking to Kay’s and Jared Jewelers as possible post-game show sponsors, replacing Home Depot.

Unlike the other networks, NFL Network doesn’t have as much rush to sell its inventory since its first game is not until Week 10 of the NFL season. And because it too has limited in-game inventory, Pattillo said he is trying to package in-game units with other NFL programming inventory.

“We consider our live games our crown jewel,” Pattillo said, “so we are very careful in how we sell that inventory.”

The NFL Network also courts the media agencies a bit differently than its bigger rivals. Four years ago, the network began a Fantasy Football league for media agencies. Last year, 16 agencies participated with the prize being a flag football game between the winning agency and a team comprised of NFL Network sales people and current and ex-NFL players.

On Aug. 27 in New York City, NFL Network held is annual Fantasy Football draft for the media agencies. According to Pattillo, about 175 media buyers and planners attended the event, at which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, for the first time, attended and announced the first five draft picks.

While NFL sales activity has been active, each of the networks said they are planning to hold back a sizable amount of inventory for scatter rather than underselling it price wise during the upfront.
Erhardt said many advertisers are only buying with 60 day windows, so holding onto inventory for November and December should not be a problem. And Pattillo said he is holding back inventory in hopes that retailers and movie companies that want to reach consumers between Thanksgiving and Christmas, will find NFL games on Thursday nights in prime time attractive.

Ditto for NBC. While it will feature the New York Giants visiting the Dallas Cowboys in the first regular season game played in the Cowboys’ new stadium, its Sunday Night Football schedule has the Giants, Cowboys, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers all playing at the tail end of the season.

And NBC has the ability under its TV deal to flex schedule, meaning it can replace existing games on its schedule with more attractive games. So the network also feels comfortable holding back its later season NFL SNF inventory.

ESPN’s Erhardt said advertisers will be watching the entertainment television prime time ratings, and if they start to falter, he believes NFL telecasts will become an attractive alternative for many advertisers.#

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