Like the return of perennial AFC powers the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots to the NFL postseason, there’s nothing inherently surprising about NBC selling out its available Super Bowl inventory well before the opening kickoff. What’s unusual this time around is that the network looks to have outpaced Fox’s record automotive haul of a year ago.
According to Seth Winter, svp of sales and marketing for NBC Sports, the last of the 35 minutes of in-game ad slots for Super Bowl XLVI was sold shortly after Thanksgiving. On average, sponsors ponied up $3.5 million per 30-second spot, although at least one late entry paid as much as $4 million.
This year’s game is scheduled to take place in Indianapolis on Sunday, Feb. 5.
Even before the 2011-12 National Football League season kicked off on Sept. 8, NBC was down to a mere handful of units . The average spot cost represents an increase of 17 percent from the $3 million price Fox commanded for its Super Bowl XLV broadcast. Moreover, NBC’s pricing represents a 57 percent hike from 2002 when Fox sold units in the Pats-St. Louis Rams nail-biter for some $2.2 million a pop.
Winter told Adweek that automotive investment in the Super Bowl has surpassed even last year’s record turnout  when no fewer than 20 car ads ran during the course of the game. “I do believe the auto category will prove to be even more prolific this year than in any other prior year,” Winter said. “We’re also seeing more long-form in-game advertising than ever before . . . and the auto category has taken that art form to new heights.”
Among the automakers driving up to the big game are returning sponsors General Motors (five spots), Hyundai and Volkswagen, the latter of which will air a 60-second spot in the third quarter. Adweek named the Deutsch/Los Angeles spot for the Volkswagen Passat (“The Force”) the best commercial of 2011 .
VW’s Audi unit is in for a spot, while Toyota has committed to a pair of ads for its 2012 Camry. Chevrolet is planning a consumer-generated spot.
After making a big debut in last year’s game, Mercedes-Benz has elected to stay on the sidelines. Other automakers are up in the air. Featured in three in-game spots during Super Bowl XLV, BMW has yet to indicate whether it will suit up for next month’s big event. Chrysler is also a question mark.
Although pricing is more or less uniform, your mileage will vary. “Certainly, pod position is very important, and so an ‘A’ position is perhaps more valuable,” Winter said. “But also, not unlike every other media company that has brought the Super Bowl to market, we look for added investment across our sports portfolio.”
In other words, a package buy across the Super Bowl and the 2012 London Summer Olympics is likely to earn a client favorable rates and/or positions within a given commercial pod.
Among the non-auto marketers on the roster is Anheuser-Busch, which boasts the official beer of the NFL in Bud Light. The brewer is in for four-and-a-half minutes of airtime. Expect at least one spot in support of the new beverage Bud Light Platinum, a high-octane, low-calorie grog that will hit shelves on Jan. 30. Usual suspects Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are also back, as are Mars Inc.’s M&Ms, Best Buy, CareerBuilder and GoDaddy.com.
Winter said studio dollars are “consistent with prior years, although they may be a little lighter.” Last year, Viacom’s Paramount Pictures invested in five in-game spots, of which four aired in the second quarter. Walt Disney bought a third-quarter spot to promote the latest chapter in its Pirates of the Caribbean saga, while a pair of Universal Pictures titles were teased in the first quarter.
Thus far, the studios have been characteristically hush-hush about their Super Bowl plans, but a few upcoming releases look like sure bets. Trailers for superhero movies tend to play well in the context of the Super Bowl; among the cape-and-cowl flicks slated for the spring and summer are Joss Weldon’s The Avengers  (Walt Disney/Marvel, May 4), The Amazing Spider-Man (Columbia/Marvel, July 3) and The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros., July 20).
Despite having signed off on all available in-game spots, NBC is in a position to accommodate a latecomer or two, Winter said. Two sponsors who made early commitments are looking to back out, and for the right price, NBC would be happy to book replacements.
Last year’s Super Bowl became the most-watched broadcast in TV history, as the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers battled in front of an average audience of 111 million viewers. That broke the short-lived record set by CBS on Feb. 7, 2010, when its presentation of Super Bowl XLIV (Saints-Colts) drew 106.5 million viewers.
While the load varies from year to year, networks generally allocate around 18 percent of in-game avails for use in promoting their own series. Last year, Fox devoted nine minutes and 15 seconds of airtime to shill American Idol, Glee, House, The X Factor and the short-lived cop drama The Chicago Code. Created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield), the series debuted the day after the Super Bowl.
Expect NBC to apportion a hunk of time to the season premiere of The Voice, which airs out of the postgame show, and the series premiere of Smash . Starring Katharine McPhee and Deborah Messing, the musical drama bows Monday, Feb. 6 on NBC.
So how does this year’s spectacle compare with the first Super Bowl? The NFL-AFL clash aired simultaneously on CBS and NBC on Jan. 15, 1967, and was the only Super Bowl to have been broadcast in the U.S. by two TV networks simultaneously. At the time, CBS held the rights to nationally televise all NFL games while NBC had the rights to broadcast AFL games.
No recording of the game in its entirety exists today, as both networks “wiped” their respective tapes in order to record other content. (CBS is believed to have recorded a soap opera over Super Bowl I.) What little footage remains includes Packer QB Bart Starr’s 37-yard TD pass to wide receiver Max McGee early in the first quarter.
NBC charged Super Bowl I advertisers $37,500 per 30-second spot and averaged 24.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus data. An ad that ran in CBS’ SBI coverage cost $42,500. That broadcast was seen by 26.8 million Americans.