Pro Field of Dreams

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.

Car sales for GM (Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac) are up sharply this year –  31 percent through May versus the same time last year. One sign that the company is confident that sales will remain strong: nine of 11 U.S. plants will remain open during the traditional two-week shutdown in July to fill anticipated production orders.

Donna Speciale, president of investment and activation and agency operations at Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest, also said strong demand for ad time from the auto sector ignited this year’s marketplace “starting with the NFL.” And, with Fox having one of the major Sunday NFL packages as well as the 2011 Super Bowl, “the momentum was there even a couple of weeks before” the prime-time market got under way, she said.

As previously reported by Mediaweek, Fox has already sold 80 percent of the available spots for next February’s Super Bowl. Many were sold prior to the start of the prime-time upfront for prices said to be $3 million per 30-second unit for the first half of the game (to be held in Dallas, Feb. 6) and $2.7 million to $2.9 million for the second half, according to buyers. Fox declined to comment.

Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer for WPP’s GroupM, said the investment in the sports market now marks a major turnaround. That market “was impacted more than other dayparts in 2009,” said Scanzoni. “The areas that were drawn down the most come back faster.” That, coupled with the “spectacular season” the NFL had in terms of audience growth last year, sparked a lot of interest this year from advertisers, he added.

Bogusz said he expects to have about 20 percent of the available ads in NFL games reserved for in-game sale. Normally it’s a little more than that, he said, “but the market is moving so much earlier this year that that’s where it will end up.”

At NBC, which airs a weekly Sunday night NFL game, Winter said the network wrote “more than a dozen” multiyear deals for the NFL.

In addition to auto, financial services and retail, said Winter, other categories gaining momentum include telecommunications, quick-service restaurants and beer. Noted Winter: “They’re all very strong.”