There is no off-season for Ron Furman, senior VP of media sales at the NFL Network.
As football fans gear up for the Super Bowl, the NFL Network is busy lining up sponsors for its array of programming. The menu includes coverage of the Senior Bowl, in which top college seniors play their first pro game; the National Football League’s biggest scouting event; the NFL draft; and the assembling of next year’s fantasy football leagues.
Sprint, Under Armour and IBM have signed up for advertising packages that include spots on NFL.com, which since June has been sold by Mr. Furman’s group. Before that, CBS Sportsline had produced the site and sold its advertising. The NFL Network also sells advertising in video-on-demand and mobile phones.
Last season was the first at NFL Network for Mr. Furman, a former Univision sales executive who put in a brief stint at MTV. It was also the first time the network televised live regular season games on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Putting the games on the NFL Network was something of a gamble for the league, which could have sold the rights to Comcast’s OLN and simply pocketed a rights fee of about $400 million. The success of Mr. Furman’s team in selling advertising on the network, the Web site and other media platforms is a key to making those bets pay off.
“A lot of the most valuable new assets becoming available to the different sports leagues [involve] the usage of digital assets and rights, and they’ve made a decision to keep them in-house,” said Tom McGovern, director of sports media at OMD’s Optimum Sports unit.
Tying the cable network to the interactivity of the Web site could build a huge asset the league would control, he said. “It could pay off. It’s pretty valuable content.”
One problem the network had during the season was getting cable operators to sign up. Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cablevision balked at the channel’s demands for a higher license fee and carriage on basic or digital basic tiers. That cost the network millions in subscriber revenue.
That also made it harder for the NFL Network to make its ratings guarantees to advertisers.
The NFL Network sold ads expecting to be distributed in 47 million households, but ended up in just 40 million. Despite that, the games drew a 5.4 rating in the network’s coverage area, making them the highest-rated programming on cable on the days they aired. (The figures include viewers who watched the telecasts on broadcast channels in the competing teams’ home markets.)
Mr. Furman said the network met “virtually all of our ratings guarantees in those games.” The league declined so say whether the NFL Network is profitable or disclose ad revenue figures.
Mr. McGovern confirmed that despite the distribution shortfall, the network delivered the buys he made for clients including NFL sponsors Pepsi, Visa, State Farm, Gatorade and Federal Express. He added that the network may also appeal to other advertisers looking to reach the male sports fan demographic.
Mr. Furman said a broad spectrum of marketers advertised in the games, including NFL sponsors General Motors, Coors, Visa and Pepsi, and others seeking a big audiences, such as Wendy’s, Vonage and Motorola.
Part of his strategy was not just to sell the games, but to sell the network as a full-time destination for football fans.
“You’ll find that those advertisers aren’t one-time advertisers. They really look at us as more of a year-round opportunity,” Mr. Furman said. “While they didn’t buy full 52-week schedules, they are involved in other programming and off-season events.”
Take athletic apparel maker Under Armour, which will be the title sponsor for NFL Network’s coverage of the Senior Bowl. In addition to the game, the network is planning 18 hours of pre-game programming.
Or the wireless company Sprint, which will be the sponsor of the NFL Network’s coverage of Super Bowl Friday and Super Bowl Saturday. Some events those days will be presented commercial-free by Sprint, including the announcement of the new Hall of Fame inductees.
Reebok in the Game
Reebok will be the lead sponsor of the NFL Network’s coverage of the league’s scouting combine, where prospects are examined by teams to see if they’re fast enough, strong enough and smart enough to play pro ball.
As part of the sponsorship, Reebok will get on-field signage, a first for the NFL. Video of events such as the 40-yard dash and the vertical leap will be put online, where Reebok will be a sponsor in what Mr. Furman called an uncluttered environment.
About 60 percent to 70 percent of the network’s big advertisers during game broadcasts also bought space on NFL.com, including Nissan, Microsoft and General Motors, Mr. Furman said.
The NFL Network has organized its sales force so that every sales account executive sells all of the platforms.
“We’ll present that kind of wrap-around solution,” Mr. Furman said. “We’ll offer them online every time we do a television buy, and also wireless and VOD where appropriate.”
Having the production and sale of the Web site in house has been a big advantage for the sales force, he said.
“We don’t control editorially what goes on NFL.com, but knowing what they’re going to focus on gave us some synergy,” he said.
For instance, Nissan has been advertising using a campaign that looks at the next generation of players.
“Knowing that we are going to cover future players online gave us the ability to link those two concepts together online for Nissan and deliver it to the client and the consumer in an understandable way,” he said.
NFL Network will also be upgrading the site’s fantasy football area. Last year, fantasy programming on TV and the Web was sponsored by GM and Sprint.
“We’ll go back to those people again,” Mr. Furman said. “I’ll be surprised if we didn’t see one or both back.”