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Another sign that advertising is in recovery mode: The upfront marketplace for National Football League spots -- as well as those for college football -- which normally doesn't begin until July, could wrap up by the end of this week, according to buyers. Sellers agreed they were close to completing their pro-football upfronts, but stressed they'd have some so-called "scatter" units for in-season sale.

In fact, buyers said the NFL market actually kicked off in May before the start of the prime-time upfront. This, in large part, was due to strong demand from automotive companies -- including General Motors, Ford and Toyota -- as well as financial services and retail marketers, many of which have decided to spend significantly more after pulling back last year due to the recession.

"The autos are back with a vengeance," said John Bogusz, evp, sports sales and marketing at CBS.

The NFL also commanded early attention, buyers said, because viewing of games last season was up by double digits (ESPN led the way with a 19 percent gain in regular-season viewing).

College football market prices for ads -- as are those in the NFL -- are up almost 9 percent from 2010 prices, per buyers and sellers. The increase matches gains achieved by a number of broadcast and cable networks during the prime-time upfront.

NBC said it wrapped its upfront NFL market effective last Friday, selling more than 80 percent of the available time for next season. Seth Winter, svp, NBC Sports and Olympics sales and marketing, called the fast pace of NFL sales "extraordinary. We're exceedingly pleased with the health of the NFL marketplace."

Not everyone, however, is happy. One buyer, for instance, who confirmed pricing but declined to be identified, called the rate rise "unfortunate."

Cable sports network ESPN is also far along, but executives there hesitated to say they were "done" given its multimedia (including TV, print, online and mobile) year-round approach to selling. "We're well sold and we feel good about where the marketplace is. It's definitely a strong market," said Ed Erhardt, president, customer marketing and sales, ESPN. He added that the upcoming NFL preview issue of ESPN The Magazine is "shaping up to be one of the biggest issues ever."

"The NFL is very active," noted CBS's Bogusz. He estimates CBS will be between 75 and 80 percent sold by the end of this week.

To describe the NFL market as active is an understatement, said the head buyer at a major New York-based agency, who asked not to be named. "It's hotter than hell," the executive said. "Autos have really put the pedal to the metal."

A GM rep confirmed that the company has increased its spending this year with the NFL. "This a good place for us to be, given that a large number of viewers to the NFL are also new car buyers," the rep said.

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