With a little more than two weeks to go before the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys kick off the 2012 NFL season on Sept. 5, demand for in-game inventory has spiked to nearly unprecedented levels. Network ad sales execs say they have sold between 85 percent and 90 percent of their regular-season airtime, with spots fetching premiums in the high single digits versus last year’s rates.
For Seth Winter, the NFL bounty arrives as NBC closes the books on an historically lucrative Summer Olympics market. After having booked north of $1 billion in national ad sales revenue for the London Games , the NBC Sports Group evp of sales and sales marketing is now raking it in with TV’s most valuable franchise, Sunday Night Football. 
“Football is probably the most impactful event there is on television, and like the Olympics, it’s very evenly balanced in terms of the demographics it serves,” Winter said. “Going from the highs of London to the Giants getting their Super Bowl rings at home against the Cowboys, that’s a wonderful segue.”
According to media buyers, a 30-second spot in Sunday Night Football now carries a price tag of around $545,000, making NBC’s prime-time NFL showcase the most elite environment on the TV dial. Last fall, SNF ended American Idol’s eight-season reign as TV’s ratings champ, averaging 20.7 million viewers and an 8.0 rating in the 18-to-49 demo.
Winter said that all but one sponsor of the Football Night in America pregame, halftime and postgame shows have returned for the fall campaign. And while the unit cost for NBC’s marquee Thanksgiving Night matchup between the New York Jets and New England Patriots is a gaudy $975,000, that broadcast is already 75 percent sold.
“Auto and the financial services/insurance categories have been very healthy and active,” said John Bogusz, evp of sales and marketing for CBS Sports, who added that around 85 percent of his AFC inventory is accounted for. For marketers willing to invest $3.8 million for 30 seconds of airtime, a dozen in-game spots in Super Bowl XLVII remain up for grabs.
All but one legacy sponsor of CBS’ The NFL Today are returning for the 2012 campaign. Verizon, the official wireless backer of the NFL, will replace rival Sprint as CBS’ halftime sponsor.
Fox’s NFC package could be as much as 90 percent sold before the season begins, with CPM increases in the high single digits on a percentile basis. Auto, insurance, QSR and computers/electronics have been particularly robust, while movies are weaker. (Theatrical is down across the TV industry, due in large part to a tepid fall release slate.) Ford is returning as the sponsor of the Fox NFL Sunday pregame, and Visa will assume its familiar role in the halftime show.
After Monday Night Football ratings fell in 2011 (against record year-ago comps, deliveries dropped 9 percent), ESPN boasts what may be its strongest prime-time football schedule since it took over the franchise in 2006. With an estimated average unit cost of $325,000, time in MNF is now more valuable than everything but SNF and Fox’s American Idol. What sets ESPN apart from the rest of the pack is the depth of its digital bench. Not only is the net selling stand-alone inventory in its WatchESPN app, but it can also monetize the 15 million users it draws during Sunday’s games.