CBS’ Super Bowl at Fourth and Goal

NEW YORK The Super Bowl has become a super pain for the broadcast networks to sell.

Case in point: CBS this year. With just three weeks to go until kickoff, the network has sold slightly more than 70 percent of the in-game commercial units. And with a total of 58 spots, the network still has about 16 slots available.

With so much potential revenue and prestige at stake—CBS could take in as much as $140 million on the three-hour game alone, in addition to millions from the six hours of pre-game programming—the three weeks prior to kickoff can generate severe angst for sales teams facing fourth and goal.

One media agency executive described this current Super Bowl selling season: “CBS is definitely in hustle mode, trying to come up with any innovative way possible to move those in-game units.”

As the cost of a 30-second spot rises each year, so does the pressure on advertisers to come up with innovative spots that will be talked about and acted upon by the 78 million viewers who tune in. The growing popularity of polls such as USA Today Ad Meter, which have consumers rate the in-game commercials the next day, has become a major factor in the decision-making process of advertisers as to whether or not they should create a spot and run it in the Super Bowl.

One network sales executive, who has sold past Super Bowls, said the next two weeks are crucial for CBS to get a bulk of the remaining units sold before Feb. 5. “It’s OK to go into the week before the game with three or four units left, but it can be a real problem if you have more than that,” the exec said.

The closer to game day, the more the ad community is in the driver’s seat as far as trying to price down the spots because the network cannot sharply lower prices without running the risk of alienating clients who came in early and paid more.

While the remaining spots are mostly in fourth quarter and early birds most likely are in the first half when the attention level is usually higher, no advertiser, regardless of placement, is going to be happy seeing a straggler get in the game at a deep discount.

“There are always Super Bowl units still available at this point, but this year there seem to be more left than the norm,” said one media exec, echoing the viewpoint of many contacted for this story.

But John Bogusz, CBS exec vp, sports sales and marketing, and Tony Taranto, senior vp of NFL sales at CBS, both insist the network is right where it was sellout level-wise when it televised the Super Bowls in ’01 and ’04.

“It is getting to be a harder sell, and we do wish more advertisers would embrace it for what it is and take advantage of the huge audience it draws,” said Bogusz, acknowledging the harder slog to sellout. Added Taranto, “Advertisers should realize that in addition to the in-game units, those ads are going to be replayed all over the Internet in the days and weeks following the game. Awareness levels for those ads rise every year.”

But that heightened awareness of the commercials—not the price tag per spot, which this year ranges anywhere from $2 million to $2.6 million depending on pod location and quantity bought—can be the problem, according to media agencies charged with buying Super Bowl spots for clients.

“The decision an advertiser faces is not a price dilemma,” said Marc Goldstein, CEO at media agency MindShare. “The reason advertisers may not go in is because of creative issues. No one wants to run an old commercial in the Super Bowl, so you have to go out and spend money to produce a new one. And the advertiser wants to make sure that this commercial does well in all the recall and opinion polls the next day. Many advertisers feel if they do not have a new product to launch, it is not worth the risk.”