Networks Turn NFL Lockout Into Big Win

Most broadcasters near sellout levels for college football

Four-and-a-half months of labor strife didn’t erode the market’s confidence in the NFL, as buyers and sellers cut deals throughout the lockout as if a resolution were never in doubt. And while the legacy of the league’s first work stoppage in nearly a quarter century is a 10-year peace accord, the rift also had a significant impact on the college game.

The uncertainty engendered by the lockout left NFL backers scrambling to fill up on NCAA football inventory, and the guarantee of Saturday games led to an unprecedented run on college airtime. As auto, soft drink and insurance dollars continue to flood the gap, broadcast partners are now all but sold out of their college football inventory. 

The biggest windfall has been at ESPN, which airs 300 college football games across its six cable networks and the ESPN3 broadband platform.

Along with its in-game inventory, which buyers say is around 85 percent accounted for, ESPN’s live Saturday pre-game show is completely sold out. “Every single unit in College GameDay is spoken for,” said Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s president of customer marketing and sales. “We saw more season-long deals, more multimedia buys, and we also had a lot more smaller guys coming in for the first time and snapping up everything they could.”

Buyers say a 30-second spot on GameDay can cost upwards of $45,000. A good deal of GameDay spots are claimed by the show’s long-term partners, which include title sponsor The Home Depot as well as Chevrolet, AT&T, Dr Pepper and the Kellogg’s snack brand, Cheez-It.

Erhardt is even closer to being out of sale with the Saturday night broadcast package, ESPN College Football on ABC. Spots in the prime-time college games cost $100,000 a pop.

Looking beyond the regular season, ESPN’s hoard of 32 bowl games, which includes the four BCS contests and the title clash. “We have very little inventory left in the BCS,” Erhardt said. “A lot of the baby bowls and BCS games move really fast because there are so many season-long deals. A lot of postseason inventory is baked-in.”

As one might expect, auto dollars are driving the college football market, as are beer and insurance. But movie dollars are also pouring in, especially in the December and January games. All told, pricing gains have mirrored those seen by NFL partners, as CPMs are up between 11 percent and 13 percent from the 2010 campaign.

“This sport represents how you’re going to see media get sold from here on out,” Erhardt said. “In college football, you can create intellectual property around a marketing idea and make it matter. It’s always good to be selling sports, and it’s really good to be selling football.”

Meanwhile, FX’s new 14-game package of Pac-12 and Big 12 contests is almost sold out, with some avails being held back ahead of the network’s early ratings results. Geico will sponsor the FX halftime show; among the marquee matchups are No. 1 Oklahoma vs. Tulsa (Sept. 3) and Syracuse at USC (Sept. 17).

On the broadcast side, CBS is all but sold out, thanks in part to its robust schedule of SEC matchups. Sources indicate that CBS has notched CPM increases in the low teens, while dollar volume is up north of 10 percent. NBC’s Notre Dame slate is also well sold.

According to Nielsen, regular-season college football ad spend added up to $508 million a year ago, up 7 percent from $477 million in 2009. The postseason brings the total haul to more than $800 million. Kantar Media data shows that college football’s bowl season accounted for $318.9 million in ad sales.


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