NBC Super Bowl Ad Sales Red Hot

Despite lockout scare, auto leads the way in fast-moving upfront

While it’s anyone’s guess when (or if) the 2011-12 National Football League season will kick off, NBC has already moved a significant chunk of its most valuable inventory.

According to a number of sources, NBC has sold nearly half of its available Super Bowl XLVI spots, cutting deals with a number of repeat clients looking to protect their positions in the big game.

Precise ad rates are unavailable, yet NBC is believed to be commanding rates above and beyond Fox’ year-ago average price of $3 million per 30-second spot. Rates for Super bowl spots typically increase by as much as $150,000 each season, although given the deluge of automotive, telecom and financial services dollars flooding the market, NBC could push for a $300,000 hike. A bold move, to be sure, but the market is likely to bear that out.

NBC advertising executives were unavailable for comment. Speaking at an ad industry conference in February, Marianne Gambelli, president of network ad sales for NBC, said she would likely look for some increase versus Fox’ 2010 rate.

“Obviously with the ratings, we’re going to push price,” Gambelli said. “But where it goes, I’m not exactly sure yet. We have a lot of conversations going on and there’s a lot of demand for it.”

Yet another harbinger of what’s certain to be a record upfront bazaar, the fast-moving avails are a recapitulation of Fox’ early sell-off of Super Bowl XLV. By early June 2010, Fox had already wrapped 80 percent of its Super Bowl business, a remarkable feat given that broadcasters had previously only reached that milestone in October—or about six weeks into the NFL regular season. Then, as now, automotive sparked the run on ad time.

Last year, eight automakers bought 20 in-game Super Bowl spots, accounting for nearly one-third of the broadcast’s total avails (63). Among those who ponied up for the exposure were Audi, BMW, Volkswagen, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Kia. The game marked Mercedes first foray into America’s great secular holiday; moreover, Fox welcomed back BMW after a 10-year absence.

Automotive has been a big part of the conversation at the NFL’s other network partners. Fox has sold a healthy portion of its regular-season avails and is believed to have wrapped up a good deal of auto business in both its Fox NFL Sunday pre-game show and within its live 1 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. broadcasts.

CBS is also said to be fielding offers for its Sunday afternoon coverage.

ESPN is in active discussions with its Monday Night Football sponsors and, given the uncertainty engendered by the NFL lockout, its 300-game NCAA football slate is the object of great interest. (One national TV buyer indicated that ESPN’s college football games are selling fast. “I’m not saying you’ll get shut out, but you might want to get your ass in gear if you’re going to want in on the marquee games,” the buyer said.)

One game that is almost certainly sold out is the Sept. 10 Notre Dame-Michigan matchup. ESPN will broadcast the meeting between the two storied programs live from Michigan Stadium; with kickoff set for 8 p.m. (the first-ever night game played there).

Sources have indicated that the incumbents aren’t hoarding all the NFL inventory; in fact, a good deal of first-time clients are throwing their lot in with football. College football is particularly popular amongst marketers who are looking to dip a toe in the water. 

While sports were traditionally sold after the broadcasters unveiled their fall schedules, ongoing prime time ratings declines and the inexorable popularity of big-time athletics have driven carmakers to lock in deals before the upfronts. Football is particularly valuable, inasmuch as it serves up huge ratings—last season, NBC’s Sunday Night Football package delivered the highest ratings for any NFL broadcast slate in a dozen years, averaging 21.8 million viewers—and is almost always consumed live. In other words, fans engrossed in NFL action are far less likely to zip through the spots.

Again, it’s impossible to overstate the allure of the NFL’s reach. Last season, football was must-see TV all over the dial; along with NBC’s record run, ESPN notched a high-water mark with an average delivery of 14.7 million MNF viewers.

Afternoon packages also showed big gains, as Fox averaged 20.1 million viewers for its roster of NFC games, while CBS put together the best AFC deliveries in 23 years, averaging 18.7 million total viewers. And at season’s end, the NFL smashed the all-time national ratings record, as the Super Bowl served up 111 million total viewers.

As was the case a year ago when Fox sold off the majority of its Super Bowl airtime before closing its first upfront deal, NBC’s early negotiations are another indication that the upfront will be a speedy, lucrative affair. Last year, broadcasters had closed their upfront business by early June, taking in some $8.3 billion in prime time commitments.

This year is likely to play out much like the 2010-11 campaign. The Big Four broadcasters are expected to increase their upfront commitments by 7.5 percent year-over-year to $9.23 billion, beating the previous high-water mark of $8.8 billion in the 2008-09 bazaar.

Barclays Capital analyst Anthony DiClemente sees CBS leading the market with sales of $3.01 billion, for a gain of 15.6 percent from a year ago. ABC’s sales should rise by as much as 12 percent to $2.68 billion, while Fox will see a 6.4 percent lift, taking in $2.11 billion.

With NBC expected to move less inventory than its peers, the Comcast-owned network should experience a concomitant decline in dollar volume. DiClemente is forecasting a 10.7 percent drop for the Peacock, with upfront orders adding up to $1.43 billion.

Much of these gains can be chalked up to a strong scatter market—CBS is landing scatter deals at a 40 percent premium versus last season’s upfront rates—and more generous auto, insurance, and telecom budgets.

Of course, should the league and its players’ union not come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, all this early activity will be for naught. And while both sides remain entrenched in their respective positions, it’s worth noting that the opening weekend of the NFL season will arrive on Sept. 11, 10 years to the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.