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Networks Cheer Ad Sales For Upcoming NFL Season

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While the television networks may still be a long way off from covering their hefty annual National Football League rights fees, advertisers are flocking to NFL telecasts. When the regular season opens this Thursday with a prime-time face-off between the Indianapolis Colts and defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots on ABC, each of the four networks televising games this season will have sold between 85 and 90 percent of their NFL ad inventory.

"There are only a handful of units left in each Monday Night Football game [on ABC] that we've held back for movie studios and possible deficiencies," said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN/ABC Customer Marketing and Sports Sales. He noted that MNF is about 90 percent sold, while ESPN is right behind. CBS and Fox both reported being at 85 percent sold for their Sunday NFL inventory.

While none of the networks would confirm rates, advertisers are paying between $325,000 and $350,000 per 30-second spot on MNF and between $100,000 and $190,000 on ESPN, depending on the package. CBS and Fox are receiving between $250,000 and $300,000. "There's a good feeling about sports programming in today's marketplace," Erhardt said. "From an advertiser's perspective, it's a pretty safe environment, and it's TiVo-deflective."

John Bogusz, CBS Sports sales president, said some advertisers have shifted money from their prime-time budgets to the NFL telecasts. "We get a solid 10 rating every Sunday, with great demos," explained Bogusz. "And the ratings are more stable."

Ray Warren, managing director of media buying giant OMD, agreed. "There is a little more stability in sports programming," he said. "With no breakout scripted hits for the networks last season, sports like the NFL look a little better to advertisers."

Visa, already a big NFL advertiser, will break three commercials during ABC's Sept. 9 opener as part of its season-long "Get Ready for the Game" campaign. The humorous ads show various, often odd, pregame rituals of both players and fans.

Staples, which previously bought only in-game ad units, will sponsor a new "Playmaking Made Easy" feature on both Sunday and Monday night editions of NFL Countdown on ESPN as part of a cross-platform buy of assorted ABC/ESPN properties. In addition, ABC/ESPN has a cross-platform NFL deal in place with Domino's that includes promotions on Domino's boxes, as well as sponsorship of pregame and support shows.

Cingular Wireless will have units in MNF for the first time as part of a deal that will create the selection of a "Cingular Wireless All-American Team," to be revealed Dec. 11.

Auto advertisers, as usual, will also have a strong presence in football this season. "The Monday Night Football audience is 60 percent male, but also 40 percent female, so family car pitches can reach that dual audience," Erhardt said.