In Depth

NBC Says It Has Sold Out of Super Bowl TV Inventory, but Two Spots Are Up for Resale

By Brian Steinberg
Advertising Age

NBC Universal has sold out of commercial time during the upcoming Super Bowl and expects to sell out its online inventory for the digital stream, a testament to the power of one of media's oldest pieces of content at a time when new technology is undermining other traditional TV offerings.

NBC Universal sold its last ad berth for Super Bowl XLVI, to be broadcast Feb. 5 from Indianapolis, around Thanksgiving, said Seth Winter, senior VP-sales and marketing at NBC Sports Group.

But the media company is still in the market. Two sponsors that he declined to name are trying to back out of their Super Bowl plans, according to Mr. Winter, and NBC is attempting to resell their time to other ad hopefuls.

The digital stream -- the first time the Super Bowl will be shown in such fashion in the U.S. -- will contain fewer ads than the TV broadcast, including just a portion of the game's overall TV ad roster. "There are going to be fewer advertisements with less messaging, something that would be more conducive to how you would expect the digital experience to be," Mr. Winter said.

The digital stream will be available via NBC's website and Verizon's NFL Mobile application.

Ad sales for the 2011 Super Bowl, broadcast on News Corp.'s Fox, were largely complete by late October of 2010, but NBC's effort may have been more complex. Every advertiser for this year's Super Bowl has purchased a "package" of inventory, Mr. Winter said. Though that happens at other networks as well, NBC Universal could include the spot not just in the traditional broadcast but on the soon-to-launch NBC Sports Network, the coming Olympics broadcast, the digital stream of the Super Bowl or other NBC Sports inventory.

"Every package has a nuance that is different than another," Mr. Winter said.

The average price for a Super Bowl package was about $3.5 million, though one sponsor paid about $4 million, Mr. Winter said. The prices represent a significant increase over those for recent telecasts, when networks' ability to enact hikes was curtailed by the recession.

Super Bowl ad prices typically vary, depending on when a commercial airs during the game and the type of package a sponsor buys. Ad berths in NBC Universal's digital stream range between the high six figures and low seven figures, Mr. Winter estimated.

The continued demand for the Super Bowl puts a spotlight on perhaps the last truly sure thing on TV. As the web and other competitors siphon traditional viewers from boob-tube standbys like morning news and prime-time dramas, the NFL championship game has managed to increase its audience for the last several years.

In 2010, Super Bowl XLIV on CBS became the most-watched event in TV history with an audience of 106.5 million, breaking the previous record of 105.9 million viewers for the network's telecast of the "M*A*S*H" series finale in 1983. Perhaps more surprising: Fox's telecast of the 2011 Super Bowl passed both of those marks, reaching about 111 million.

NBC's broadcast of the 2012 Super Bowl will contain about 35 minutes of national advertising, with other time reserved for network promos and ads sold by local NBC affiliates. National sponsors include Anheuser-Busch InBev, Audi of America, Best Buy, CareerBuilder, Cars.com, Century 21, Coca-Cola, Dannon Yogurt, General Motors, GoDaddy.com, Hyundai, Mars Inc.'s M&Ms, PepsiCo, Toyota and Volkswagen.

If the event again posts outsize ratings, TV networks will remain aggressive.

"I'm still not quite sure that we have pushed the boundaries of what a Super Bowl ad is worth," said Mr. Winter.