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As Culture Sweats Football’s Future, Ad Buyers and Sellers Seize the Day

Related: All the Right Moves

While there remains a degree of angst about pro football’s long-term cultural and societal outlook, marketers are flooring the accelerator on one of the few reliable winners in a chaotic television landscape.

All of the NFL partner networks’ ad sales have surpassed last season’s levels already, led by the automotive category as well as strength in movies, insurance and fast food. NBC’s primetime broadcasts are approaching 90% sold for the season, up from the mid-80% level at this time last year, while the other networks are in the 85% sellout range.

“We’ve had by far our best NFL upfront ever,” said Seth Winter, executive VP, sales and marketing for NBC Sports Group. “It’s been incredibly healthy. We’ve had to turn some business away.”

The daily fantasy sports ad category, led by Draft Kings and Fan Duel, could contribute a bonus influx. Sources told B&C’s Media Buyer and Planner Today newsletter that each company has committed to spending $25 million to $30 million per network this season, or more than $200 million, which has considerably tightened inventory.

Buyers say NBC is getting mid-to-high single-digit price increases for its NFL inventory, while the other networks, including ESPN and NFL Network, are getting mid-single-digit increases.

Neil Mulcahy, executive VP of Fox Sports ad sales, said Fox’s Sunday early-and late-afternoon NFL games thrive on the family viewing aspect. “Lots of families tend to watch the games together on Sundays, and this is attractive to advertisers,” he said. During the recent CBS NFL media day, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus also noted that late Sunday afternoon games outdraw all other football matchups on an average week, including ballyhooed Sunday-and Monday-night tilts, and often bleed into coveted primetime.

Eric Johnson, executive VP of global multimedia sales for ESPN customer marketing and sales group, said his network is also pacing ahead of last year in its NFL game sales. “We’ve had a very successful upfront both for our overall programming and events, and for the NFL,” he said. “Not only was our NFL upfront selling strong, but we’ve continued to sell NFL advertising in scatter.”

The network is also selling ads for Watch ESPN, where viewers can watch Monday Night Football games and all the other ESPN live events across devices.

The surge of upfront interest figures to culminate in a milestone among milestones, the 50th Super Bowl on Feb. 7. CBS sales chief Jo Ann Ross and her sports lieutenants shied away from specific inventory numbers at the media gathering, but pronounced themselves “pleased.” The network’s Tony Taranto said he began official talks with agencies the day after Super Bowl XLIX last February. They shied away from offering specific inventory numbers. “For a week in August when everyone’s on vacation, it’s a pretty good week for us,” Ross said. CBS president/CEO Leslie Moonves said on the company’s quarterly earnings call last month that a 30-second Super Bowl spot would fetch at least $5 million, which would be up 11% from rates that NBC got last time.

Aside from needing new calculators, sales execs and their clients are running out of adjectives. NBC’s Winter called NFL live game telecasts “a juggernaut.” Fox’s Mulcahy described “a locomotive.” Added ESPN’s Johnson: “The NFL is still dominating the interest of advertisers. Everyone is waiting for the saturation point to be reached, but it hasn’t been yet.”