When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

A Notre Dame-Alabama BCS title bout has ESPN counting its blessings

Outlined against a California sky the color of Frank Sinatra’s irises, the Seven Horsemen of Notre Dame’s defensive front line rode again. In a show of grit that would have left Grantland Rice scrambling for the Roget’s, the Irish on Nov. 24 stymied USC with a late goal-line stand that was the stuff of legend, thereby punching their ticket to the Discover BCS National Championship Game.

Among the 16.1 million football fans who watched Notre Dame clinch its first real shot at the title since 1988 was Ed Erhardt, president, ESPN global customer marketing and sales. And while the ad sales chief isn’t one to play favorites, to say he was pleased with the outcome would be an exercise in radical understatement.

“Notre Dame is an extra-ordinary brand, a team with national appeal and an absolutely devoted fan base,” Erhardt said. “And the fact that they have not been in contention for any of the Bowl Championship Series games in years makes them a really compelling story.”

Given that the Irish are squaring off against SEC powerhouse/defending national champs Alabama—a school that also boasts a none-too-shabby lineage—suggests that the ratings for the Jan. 7 broadcast will be celestial. Last year, the Crimson Tide stomped the stripes off the LSU Tigers in front of a national TV audience of 24.2 million viewers, of which nearly half (46 percent) were members of the 18-49 demo. While it was a yawner, ’Bama-LSU was the second most watched telecast in cable history.

Because the title sponsors are allotted between eight and 10 spots in their showcase BCS games (Fiesta, Rose, Orange, Sugar and the National Championship Game), inventory was tight long before the matchups were even announced. Units went particularly fast in this year’s upfront, and Erhardt estimates that he sold between 80 percent to 85 percent of all of his available bowl inventory in the spring bazaar.

The relative scarcity of air time and the potential for blockbuster deliveries have latecomers digging deep. While ESPN does not comment on pricing, media buyers said 30-second spots packaged with digital opportunities were going for as much as $1 million just two weeks ago.

“We have a handful of opportunities that we are using very strategically so that all parts of our portfolio are monetized,” Erhardt said, adding that nearly every linear TV buy is packaged with real estate on a suite of digital properties that includes ESPN.com and the WatchESPN app.

Those looking to buy in-game spots to stream on WatchESPN are out of luck. “That’s a very attractive, largely uncluttered environment,” said one bowl buyer. “We started looking at those opportunities back in June.”