As Football Nears the End of a Hugely Successful TV Season, Ad Slots Are Few and Far Between

Buyers love the NFL's massive, real-time reach

The holiday season is over, and while Santa may be taking some well-deserved time off, a few networks still have a big present to unwrap in the form of playoff football.

In our time-shifted world, sports remains the belle of the ball, with the NFL still comfortably wearing the glass slipper.

The two most-watched prime-time series this fall were NFL programs: NBC's Sunday Night Football continues to keep the network's head above water, averaging 22.5 million viewers this season, the most since NBC began airing the package in 2006. Right behind Sunday Night Football was CBS's second year of Thursday Night Football, which averaged 17.6 million viewers for the eight games it aired and 13 million when you add in the NFL Network-only games. On ESPN, Monday Night Football averaged 12.9 million viewers.

On Sunday afternoons, America's Game of the Week on Fox had an average of 26.8 million viewers. (Overall, Fox averaged 20.1 million viewers.) CBS averaged north of 19 million viewers for its Sunday afternoon games this season, the highest for the AFC package in 19 years.

So it should come as no surprise that advertisers are chomping at the bit to get in on the fun.

"Mass audience in a fragmented world is a rare commodity," said Jason Maltby, executive director of national broadcast for Mindshare. "There is nothing else on TV that does that."

But with most advertisers making their buys before the season, there are few spots still available for those trying to get in on the playoffs.

As usual, the largest advertisers during the playoffs will come from the automotive, motion-picture, insurance, and technology and financial services categories.

Among the advertisers viewers won't see are DraftKings and FanDuel. But it's not due to the legal problems facing daily fantasy sports. Rather, said Neil Mulcahy, evp of Fox Sports ad sales, much of the daily fantasy sports ad buys were only meant for the early part of the season. "It's not like they've pulled out of it; they just didn't buy it," Mulcahy said.

For the second year, ESPN kicks off the playoffs on Saturday afternoon with the Houston Texans hosting the Kansas City Chiefs. And Disney, always one for corporate synergy, will broadcast the game on both ESPN and ABC—the first NFL game on ABC since Super Bowl XL 10 years ago. ESPN wouldn't comment on its inventory, saying only that they're "very well sold" for the game.

For the first time since it regained the NFL in 2006, NBC will not have a game on Wildcard Saturday, instead getting the early Sunday afternoon window, though Seth Winter, evp of advertising sales at NBC Sports Group, says the time slot doesn't matter to him much. "I'm more focused on the matchup than I am the time period," he said. "So many variables go into whether a game is successful or not."

Winter said NBC sold out its inventory for that game—a chilly affair between the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings—but has a few spots remaining for its Divisional Round game on Jan. 16 in Arizona. This is the second year that NBC has a spot in the second round.

"There's only so much revenue in a marketplace in a given weekend," Winter said. "If you can take it over two weekends, it's more advantageous to us to play in a bigger potential pool of advertisers."

Over on Fox, the first two weekends are sold out, with a small handful left for its NFC Championship game. Though the network has only three games this year, the fewest it's had in years, it does get the late-afternoon slot on Sunday with two teams that have large followings in the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins. It gets the Carolina Panthers, with MVP candidate Cam Newton, on divisional weekend, but most importantly, it gets the near-primetime spot for the NFC Championship on Jan. 24.

CBS, meanwhile, says it has a few units open for each of its games, including Super Bowl 50 next month. "We're never sold out; there's always opportunities," said Jo Ann Ross, CBS president of network sales.

Once again, CBS gets the benefit of having the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos for its two divisional round games (though last year NBC aired the Patriots' game), as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers for its Wildcard matchup. "We had a very good regular season in terms of the marketplace, and that's just carried over into the playoffs," said John Bogusz, evp, sports sales and marketing.