NFL Lockout, What NFL Lockout?

Even during the labor spat, advertisers were spending with abandon on NFL

The four-month National Football League lockout may have left football fans scrambling for the Ativan, but for advertisers, a positive outcome to the labor crisis was a given. Ad buys were made throughout the work stoppage, and according to sources on both sides of the negotiations, demand for the NFL has never been stronger.

With just five weeks before the start of the season, the league’s network partners have sold around 85 percent of their regular-season inventory. National TV buyers report that pro football CPMs are shadowing the 11 percent to 13 percent hikes broadcasters secured in the 2011-12 upfront. 

NBC has a particularly hot ticket in its Sunday Night Football lineup, which is loaded with big draws like Dallas, Pittsburgh, and the New York Giants. According to Nielsen, NBC last season averaged 21.2 million viewers per SNF broadcast, making it the most-watched package on television. “Some of our games are sold out in the high 80s [percent of ads sold],” says Seth Winter, head of NBC Sports Group sales & marketing.

NBC spent the last four months cutting deals as if the lockout were happening in a parallel universe. “There was never any real doubt in the mind of the ad market that there would be a resolution,” Winter says. “All along, the behavior of the key parties reinforced our belief that we would have football in September.”

That sentiment was echoed by the NFL’s other broadcast partners. Neil Mulcahy, who runs Fox Sports’ advertising sales, said that while the lockout had its share of hairy moments, NFL loyalists were disinclined to wait out the dispute. “The bottom line is, the NFL is irreplaceable,” Mulcahy said. “Anyone who spends a significant amount of dollars with the NFL had to take that chance.”

Business is also up at CBS and ESPN. And as was the case a year ago, automotive dollars are driving the NFL market. “We probably won’t see the sort of growth in auto we saw last year because there are only so many car ads the networks can sell,” says Sam Sussman, an executive and media director at Starcom Worldwide. (Most automakers buy four units in a quarter to lock in exclusivity for that portion of the game.)

If buyers seem relieved, perhaps no one is breathing more easily than NBC, which hosts Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5. By mid-May, NBC had already sold nearly half of its Super Bowl spots, at rates as high as $3.3 million for 30 seconds of airtime.

While NBC chose not to comment on the matter, outside sources estimate it has fewer than 20 in-game spots remaining.