Winter Olympic Ad Sales Get Lukewarm Response

With fewer than 90 days to go before the Olympic torch arrives at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, NBC Universal still has a solid chunk of inventory on its hands. And while the advertising marketplace has begun showing signs of life in the past few weeks, the Peacock faces an uphill climb if it’s to hit its volume target.

Per media agency estimates, NBCU must move between 30 percent and 35 percent of its 2010 Winter Games avails if it’s to be wrapped by the time the first athlete points his skis down the jump at Whistler Olympic Park. That NBC is pacing behind precedent isn’t exactly an unexpected development, given the impact the recession has had on the television business. In late November 2006, the network was about 85 percent sold out for the Torino Games, well on its way to setting a record Winter Olympics haul of $930 million; of course, that same year saw the U.S. economy grow 2.7 percent.

Four years ago, sponsors of NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage paid between $500,000 and $700,000 for a 30-second spot, and an ad in the 2010 Games could fetch as much as $800,000. That said, media buyers suggest that NBC is much more flexible on pricing this time around.

“NBC will be on a price rollercoaster until they firm things up,” said Larry Novenstern, evp and director of electronic media for Optimedia. “There may be some good opportunities between now and then, and at this point, they’re willing to listen to anything. At the same time, there’s a point beyond which they’re going to say, ‘We’re not bending.’” NBC declined comment.  

One TV executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that NBC has become increasingly active in the past few weeks. “Speaking to general market conditions, auto’s coming back, thanks to GM and Chrysler. Telco money’s there because AT&T and Verizon are duking it out,” the exec said. “I can’t say whether this is going to hold up, but right now, if you’re a major advertiser looking for big-time exposure in Q1, the Olympics is a hell of a buy.”

NBC’s flexibility on pricing is a necessary byproduct of lesser commitments from the likes of Anheuser-Busch, which has cut its Olympics spend in half. Given the increased emphasis on baby faces like snowboarder Shaun White, speed skater Shani Davis and skiier Lindsey Vonn, the network is in a position to land more youth-targeted sponsors. (Throughout NBC’s coverage of last summer’s Beijing Olympics, the biggest ratings gains were among adults 18-24 and men 18-34.)

One national TV buyer suggested that NBC is likely to offload a good amount of its remaining inventory on makegoods for underdeliveries in its prime-time lineup. “They can devote 20 percent to makegood weight, and that clears the deck in terms of the liabilities they’re carrying around with them,” the buyer said.

While ratings guarantees for the Winter Games are hashed out on a client-by-client basis, most observers believe NBC shouldn’t have to worry about not hitting their deliveries. “They’re almost certain to do better than the games in Torino, which were impacted by the time difference and the lack of a big storyline,” said Horizon research chief Brad Adgate. “Bode Miller didn’t win a medal, the hockey team lost almost all of their games, Michelle Kwan had to drop out…all the big names didn’t show up.”