NBC is already on the 15-yard line with ad sales of its NFL “Sunday Night Football” season, which kicks off Thursday night.
With a strong schedule in the offing and a squad of top announcers led by John Madden and Al Michaels, advertisers have been eager to sign on. Peter Lazarus, senior VP of sales for NBC Sports and Olympics, said last week the network is 85 percent sold out and that revenues are pacing according to plan. After the Thursday night debut, NBC will regularly air football on Sunday nights.
“Our goal was to maintain a premium over weekend afternoon [football game] pricing, and we’ve been able to accomplish that, and now we’ve gotten to a successful place in a lot of key categories,” Mr. Lazarus said.
In an unusual deal, NBC has secured General Motors’ Chevrolet division as a sponsor for the 15 minutes of its pre-game show from 8 p.m. to 8:15 p.m., directly before the start of the game.
The pre-game show starts at 7 p.m. “The whole idea of a network having a studio show in prime time is unusual,” Mr. Lazarus said. “They’re trying to focus on the section closest to the games.” Toyota is the halftime sponsor.
Needing to add some muscle to the NBC lineup, NBC Universal agreed to pay the National Football League $600 million a year to replace ABC as the league’s prime-time network partner.
While the overall television market has been weakened by splintering ratings, concern over commercials are being skipped and a flight of ad dollars to the Internet, sports has remained a bright spot, and the NFL is shiniest of all.
Both Fox and CBS, which start new six-year deals for Sunday afternoons, say they are also about 85 percent sold out and getting high-single-digit increases in prices on a cost-per-thousand viewer basis.
ESPN, which used to sell ad time for both “Monday Night Football” on ABC and “Sunday Night Football” on ESPN, now has only “MNF” on cable, and that’s virtually sold out, said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN Customer Marketing and Sales. ESPN’s cable games have far fewer national commercials than their broadcast rivals. The scarcity pushes up the CPMs, buyers said.
Because its sports inventory is new, NBC faced the biggest challenges this season.
“They’ve got a tougher job to do because they don’t have any incumbencies out there, so they’ve had to do a little more work there,” said Sam Sussman, senior VP in charge of sports negotiations at Starcom.
On ABC, prime-time football ratings have been in decline, and NBC, in tackling NFL football on Sunday night, is vying for viewers “arguably on one of the most competitive nights in all of prime-time television,” Mr. Sussman said. “The question will be who owns the remote control in the house when it comes to prime-time television after watching a day full of football. We have some healthy debate about what that number is going to be in terms of a rating.”
Because the NFL has given NBC a schedule filled with teams that were successful last year over the first nine weeks of the season, Mr. Sussman expects NBC to outperform the 10.8 Nielsen Media Research household rating that ABC’s “MNF” averaged last season. “ABC had some horrific match-ups last year,” he said.
In addition to a strong schedule, the NFL also is introducing this season what it calls “flex scheduling,” which will allow the league to move a Sunday afternoon game to Sunday night to prevent less meaningful games from airing in the prime-time showcase. While Fox and CBS can protect some of the best games from moving, and league rules prevent teams from appearing too many times in prime time, flex scheduling is expected to give NBC’s NFL ratings at least a small boost.
NBC is anticipating an 11 rating. “We believe we’re being realistic. It’s a new property on a new night. We’re looking to deliver people and have them come back to this property year after year,” Mr. Lazarus said.
Big advertisers are in the auto, beer, telecom and fast-food categories. “Those seem to be the spenders in football, and we’ve gotten our fair share from them,” he said. Also advertising are tech companies like Ask.com and Dell Computer.
“I think the majority of our clientele either came from ABC’s `Monday Night Football,’ or even more so from CBS or Fox,” Mr. Lazarus said, adding that “the NFL marketplace is healthy and everyone will do well.”
Mr. Sussman of Starcom agreed that demand for football was outpacing the entertainment marketplace in prime time, and John Bogusz, president of sales for CBS Sports, said he was seeing money moving to football from prime time.
“We’re feeling good that the sports marketplace is extremely healthy,” said Mr. Lazarus, who noted that the network’s upcoming coverage of Ryder Cup golf and Notre Dame football are already virtually sold out.