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Everyone’s Getting Paid But the Kids

While the TV business sweated out a resolution to the NFL lockout, networks that air college football were confidently watching the advertising dollars mount on the scoreboard.

“College football in this past upfront marketplace was the hot commodity,” says Kevin Collins, senior VP at Initiative. “The SEC on CBS was very hot. They were done pretty quickly and early. ESPN did very well. And I believe for the first time in a few years, Notre Dame on NBC is virtually sold out as well this early.”

Nielsen says that regular-season spending on college football was $508 million in 2010, up 6% from $477 million in 2009. This year could be even bigger. Despite recent scandals at Ohio State, Miami, and Oregon, prices for ads in college football games were up in the “healthy double-digit range,” Collins says. He says the autos were back in the game this season, as well as financial services and quick-serve restaurants.

“It was a good market, no doubt,” says Ed Erhardt, president of customer marketing and sales at ESPN. With Bowl Championship Series sponsors like Allstate, Discovery and Tostitos signed to multi-year deals, “we’re pacing ahead of last year, and last year was a pretty good year,” Erhardt says, referring to both regular-season and bowl games.

At CBS, pricing and volume increases were in the double-digit range. “We literally have very little if any inventory remaining,” says John Bogusz, executive VP, sports sales & marketing. The NFL lockout didn’t seem to have much effect. “Some regular college football accounts just increased their spending,” Bogusz says.

Live sports has become more attractive to advertisers in a DVR world, and beyond growing ratings and high engagement with an educated audience, college football offers in-game branding opportunities.

“You can’t present the NFC Championship, or the Super Bowl,” says Collins, who negotiated a deal making Vizio the presenting sponsor of the Rose Bowl starting last year. “When you think of the NFL, there are so many brands involved. When you think of college football, you think of certain brands like Home Depot or Vizio. You can really own a piece of real estate within the college football marketplace.”

While loyal advertisers held on to most sponsorship packages, there were new openings at Fox Sports, which will air games on FX this fall. “There wasn’t a lot of inventory for new sponsors who were interested in college football, so we were fortunate to be there with a new package in a relatively tight market,” says Todd Siegel, executive VP, Fox Cable Sports ad sales.

The 14 FX games are just about sold out in the third quarter and nearly 90% sold out in the fourth quarter, with some units held back until ratings start coming in. Fox Sports expects the games to draw higher ratings on FX than the 0.72 rating national games on FSN got last year. Fox is also charging more than it would have for other FX programming. “We think there’s a little CPM premium to live sports,” Siegel says.

Key FX college football sponsors include Russell Athletics, which will be presenting sponsor; Geico, which sponsors halftime; plus Dr Pepper and Buick, which, like Geico, are also FSN clients.

Dr Pepper will be a sponsor of the new Big Ten and Pac-12 championship games on Fox Broadcasting, which will add a regular-season package next year.

Also attracting new sponsors is the Big Ten Network, getting set for its fifth football season. New advertisers include Hyundai, BMW, Dr Pepper, Culligan Water and Buick, which is sponsoring the network’s Live Big initiative.

The addition of powerhouse Nebraska is generating interest in the network, says Roy Seinfeld, VP of advertising for the Big Ten Network. “Everyone wants to be involved in the inaugural season, and everyone thinks there will be an uptick in ratings,” he says.

The acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast means that in addition to Notre Dame games on broadcast, NBC Sports Group is selling college football tilts on Versus. “That was very good for us. It gives us greater scale in terms of the amount of games we were able to bring to the market,” says Seth Winter, senior VP, NBC Sports Group Sales & Marketing. With the Irish on the upswing under new coach Brian Kelly after a few years of ratings that underperformed, Winters says prices on NBC were up in the low double-digits. College football prices on cable were up in the high-single-digit range.

“College football is just a great, great property. Hopefully someday we’ll get more of it,” Winter says.

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