The National Football League is putting on its game face, huddling up with media buyers from 16 leading agencies for its annual Fantasy Football Draft party.
In what will be the seventh such event since NFL Network first began airing Thursday Night Football in 2006, the league tonight (Aug. 23) will play host to more than 250 buyers and planners at the Best Buy Theatre in Times Square. Among the NFL players expected to make an appearance at the draft are two New York Jets defensive specialists—linebacker Bart Scott and cornerback Darrelle Revis—and retired greats and current NFL Network  analysts Marshall Faulk and Michael Irvin.
Among the agencies that will participate in the draft are: Busch Media, Carat, Horizon Media, Initiative, MEC, MediaCom, MediaVest, Mindshare, MPG, OMD, PHD, TargetCast tcm, Universal McCann, Wieden + Kennedy and Zenith. Reps from the participating agencies represent virtually all of the NFL’s 23 national sponsors.
Along with the obvious networking opportunities that should arise during this sort of gathering, the league has some business to attend to as well. Having added five games to its TNF roster, NFL Network now has nearly 65 percent more available in-game inventory than it did a year ago.
“Our games offer the same opportunity for clients to reach the NFL audience as the networks do, but on a different night,” said David Pattillo, the NFL’s vp for media sales. “And because you’re looking at a lower ratings threshold, you don’t have to spend as much on the unit cost.”
NFL Network is available in 60 million homes, roughly half (53 percent) of the U.S. television universe of 114.1 million homes. ESPN, the only other cable outlet to carry live NFL games, boasts a reach of 98.8 million households.
Last season’s slate of eight TNF games averaged a record 6.2 million viewers, a tally that does not include deliveries for over-the-air broadcasts in home markets. The NFL Net’s telecast of the Thanksgiving night 49ers at Ravens game averaged an all-time high 10.7 million viewers.
While NFL Net’s inventory can be had for a fraction of the cost of time in the NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN broadcasts, Pattillo said his CPM increases are on par with network premiums—up in the high single digits  versus last season’s in-game rates.
Demand is also demonstrably elevated. “We’re pacing really well,” Pattillo said. “We front-loaded sales for the first two games—we have the Packers and Bears in the greatest rivalry in football in our first game and then the Super Bowl champion Giants and Cam Newton and the Panthers in Game 2—and we’re sold out there. And then the rest of the schedule we’ve largely left open to scatter.”
The NFL characterizes tonight’s event as the final upfront of the year, inasmuch as it offers buyers a last-second shot at snapping up linear TV and digital inventory that they may have overlooked during the summer bazaar. The draft party also marks the start of the crucial fourth-quarter scatter market.
On the fantasy side, reps from each agency will spend the evening constructing a roster of NFL starters and reserves. As in years past, the winning agency earns the right to compete in a flag football game with the NFL media sales team and a number of former players. The game will take place next April in Central Park. PHD earned bragging rights last year, succeeding 2010 champs MediaVest.
NFL Network’s 13-game schedule kicks off Sept. 13 with the 185th meeting between the Bears and Packers. The final Thursday night game of the 2012 campaign is scheduled for Dec. 13 (Bengals at Eagles).
The league announced it had beefed up NFL Net’s package of live games  in February. NFL Media chief operating officer Brian Rolapp last week suggested that the supersized TNF lineup could very well prove to be a permanent measure.
“For the foreseeable future, we’ll have 13 games,” Rolapp said. “There are no plans to put those on and take those off. It’s a new package that the NFL Network has, [and] for years to come. How long, exactly, I don’t know, but certainly for years to come, we plan to have 13 games on the network.”
In other words, don’t count on the NFL auctioning off a new eight-game Thursday night package  any time soon. And while that’s good news for NFL Net, it’s perhaps a bitter pill for would-be suitors Comcast/NBCUniversal, Fox Sports and Turner Sports, all of which had expressed keen interest in such a bundle.
NFL Net last year generated $675 million in total revenue, per SNL Kagan estimates. Affiliate fees accounted for roughly three-quarters of the network’s take.