Q4 a Nonstarter: TV Sports Feeling Recession

After a three-day sell-off that wiped out nearly $1 trillion in market value, the Dow last Thursday pulled a Brett Favre, rallying in midday trading to end the day up 552.6 points to 8,835.25. Trouble is, like the veteran quarterback, the Street tends to be maddeningly erratic.

The economy suffers from a similar volatility, and the downturn has begun to have a chilling effect on the TV sports marketplace.

Once thought to be the sole recession-proof property on television, big-ticket sports are showing signs of vulnerability in the fourth quarter, with ad sales down as much as 15 percent, according to a number of media buyers and network execs. Brisk sales in the upfront and long-term sponsorship packages have gone a long way to cushion the blow, but the scatter market is all but paralytic, as many key categories have practically shut down.

Predictably, financial services and domestic auto have fallen out of play, although a drop-off in the latter category has been offset by foreign auto. Hyundai has been particularly active, buying time in nearly all available sports, including TNT’s Thursday night NBA showcase and across ESPN’s college- and pro-football properties.

If the banking and credit card money is dwindling, insurance is pulling its weight, as Geico has been ubiquitous in the quarter, thanks to upfront deals and a healthy investment in scatter time. Nationwide and Progressive are also spending, according to network sales execs.

For all that, buyers are intimating that it is clearly not a seller’s market, and that even iron-clad franchises like the National Football League are coming at a discount. “At the end of the day my clients pay me to act in their best possible interest, and so whatever weaknesses are out there we’ll take advantage of them,” said Larry Novenstern, executive vp and director of national electronic media for Optimedia. In the aggregate, Novenstern eyeballs sports’ decline at around 15 percent, although prime-time events are holding steady, landing scatter dollars slightly above upfront pricing.

National Sunday afternoon NFL games are down slightly from the average price of $400,000 per 30-second spot, but the long-term looks a bit more troubling. Fox has one or two units left in its Thanksgiving Day game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks, but CBS is said to be having a hard time unloading time in its Turkey Day match-up, which may be a function of the profound mismatch it has on its hands in the (at press time) 0-9 Detroit Lions and the 9-0 Tennessee Titans.

The economy is getting its licks in with the NFL’s most high-profile game as well. NBC said that it still has about eight Super Bowl spots on its hands, having most recently brought Cars.com back in for a second year. Much of the availability can be chalked up to pull-back from previous Super Bowl advertisers, like General Motors, Garmin and Salesgenie.com.

The nation’s fourth-largest advertiser, GM spent an estimated $5.4 million on one 60-second spot in last year’s game.

Returning sponsors include: Anheuser-Busch, Hyundai, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. While NBC awaits word from FedEx, the net has signed on a new Super Bowl sponsor in dog-food brand Pedigree.

If football is facing something of an uphill climb, the National Basketball Assn. has been fairly steady thus far in the 2008-09 season. TNT and ESPN both enjoy the security of two-to-three-year deals with clients like

T-Mobile and Nationwide, and neither are hugely dependent on auto as far as their pro hoops coverage is concerned. “Having long-term media partners is certainly a benefit,” said Turner Sports president David Levy. “Our existing deals with sponsors allow us to weather the storm.” As steward of the NBA’s digital properties, TNT also has more latitude to develop multiplatform executions for clients, upping the value proposition.