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MBPT Spotlight: Networks 80%-85% Sold Out Of NFL Inventory—Slightly Less Than Last Season

With the 2014 NFL season ready to kick off next Thursday on NBC, the TV rights holders are enjoying another solid ad sales season, having each sold between 80%-85% of their entire season and playoff inventory, excluding the Super Bowl.

NBC has the Super Bowl this year but unlike Fox—which last year at this time was very vocal about having just 10 units left to sell in the big game—the network has been mum about its Super Bowl sellout level.

Seth Winter, executive VP, sales and marketing for NBC Sports Group, would only say, “We are very pleased with our Super Bowl ad sales so far. We have sold a lot of units and are selling those units both individually and as part of [NFL season] packages.”

The consensus among the sales executives at NBC, Fox and ESPN is that the addition of eight new games awarded to CBS by the NFL this season—seven to air on Thursday nights that will be simulcast with NFL Network, and the eighth on a Saturday exclusive to CBS—has not impacted their ad pricing or sellout levels, but it did delay the start of the NFL ad sales upfront a bit. That’s because the other networks waited to see how CBS was going to price its Thursday night NFL inventory, what its ratings guarantees would be and whether the ad community would be willing to pay the CBS asking price. 

As last September approached, the TV rights holders each had sold about 85%-90% of their NFL inventory, but the slightly less volume sold so far this year, they say, has more to do with the economy and a decision by some marketers to hold some money back.

One network sales executive who did not want to be identified said the additional CBS Thursday night ad inventory “added minimal new rating points to the overall NFL marketplace” and has not had that much of an impact on pricing or sellout levels of the CBS competitors.

NBC’s Winter says, “We’ve seen no negative impact from all the added inventory on CBS. The power of live sports and the NFL in particular to draw mass audiences, as well as the increased demand by more and more marketers to come into NFL games has outweighed the added inventory that CBS brought to the market.”

John Bogusz, executive VP of sports sales and marketing at CBS says “no one seems to have cut back in our Sunday telecasts to move money into Thursday,” adding that pricing on Sunday has held up well with the network, gaining percentage increases over last year in the mid- to high-single digits.

However, last year at this point, CBS had sold about 85% of its NFL inventory, while this season, according to sources, its sellout level is about 80%.

While Bogusz would not comment on its guarantees or pricing for its new Thursday night package, sources familiar with its negotiations say the network is issuing guarantees based on a household rating of 12.3 and its asking price per 30-second spot is north of $500,000. Last year, NBC sold its Sunday Night Football primetime spots for about $600,000 and it finished the season averaging a 12.6 household rating and 21.4 million viewers per telecast.

While CBS’ 12.3 household ratings guarantee might seem aggressive, Thursday night, like Sunday, is a heavy TV viewing night. And it’s also important to point out that Fox’s Sunday afternoon NFL telecasts last season averaged a 12.5 household rating and drew 21.1 million viewers per telecast. CBS’ Sunday afternoon NFL games last season averaged an 11.1 household rating and 18.6 million viewers.

Bogusz says so far there are about six new advertisers to the CBS NFL telecasts that have bought ad time in Thursday Night Football, although he would only identify two of them—Lowe’s, which is sponsoring the first portion of the pregame show from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Mazda, which will sponsor the postgame show.

Night Fever

CBS is going to televise seven consecutive Thursday night NFL games beginning Sept. 11—during the second week of the season—and running through the eighth week. It will then televise its eight game on Saturday, Dec. 20 in primetime. The CBS telecasts of those first seven games will be simulcast on NFL Network and the same commercials, now being sold by CBS, will air on both. 

Beginning with week nine, the NFL Network will televise the next seven Thursday night games exclusively using its own announcers, and its sales team is selling that commercial time separately. NFL Network will also televise its eighth game on the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 20.

On CBS, in addition to Lowe’s and Mazda, Verizon will sponsor the second portion of the Thursday pregame show from 8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Verizon is also returning as sponsor of the CBS halftime show on Sundays. Lexus will be the Thursday night halftime-presenting sponsor on CBS. Southwest Airlines returns to CBS as presenting sponsor of its Sunday studio show The NFL Today.

Zales will be presenting sponsor of the NFL Network’s Thursday night pregame show beginning Oct. 30. Lexus, which sponsored the NFL Network halftime show last season will return again, and Mazda will also sponsor the NFL Network’s postgame show.

Brian Matthews, senior VP, media sales for the NFL, where he oversees media advertising for both the network and the league, says the network is getting higher rates than last year for its exclusive eight games, but would not say how much higher.

Matthews said new advertisers have come on board in the automotive, retail and fast food restaurant categories and added that the ad volume in the auto category is up a double-digit percentage.

The eight NFL Network game telecasts also will be shown in their entirety for the first time on and via mobile on the Watch NFL Network app. Matthews says the network has sold separate digital ad packages for the digital telecasts to about a dozen advertisers.

While he wouldn’t offer up a percentage of ad sellout, Matthews says the network is pacing ahead of last year for advertising in its own eight games, and credits much of that to its partnership with CBS that has elevated awareness for Thursday night football. Last season the NFL Network had a successful year on its own, averaging 8.1 million viewers, a record for the network and enough viewers to make it the most-watched cable network on Thursday nights.

Winter is projecting that NFL ad volume on NBC, excluding the Super Bowl, will be up about 7% this season. He says NBC’s ad rate increases so far have been in the high-single digits and much like the other networks, the auto category has been one of the strongest, along with insurance, fast food restaurants, wireless and movies.

“The NFL marketplace is the most sought after by advertisers in all of sports; nothing compares to the NFL,” Winter says. “NFL ad inventory is the gold standard.”

NBC may at this point be the most sold out of the NFL rights holders. Winter says some of the regular season Sunday night games are already sold out and others are between 85%-90% sold out. “The Thanksgiving night game is exceptionally well sold with only a few units left,” he says.

Winter says NBC started out with a strong base of advertisers because more than half of its NFL deals are multi-year deals so many marketers were already in for the coming season. He says the Sunday pregame show is pretty much sold out: “We don’t have enough ad real estate in our Sunday pregame show to accommodate the demand.”

Neal Mulcahy, executive VP of Fox Sports sales says the network is between 80%-85% sold out of its regular and postseason NFL ad inventory. That would be about 5% lower than last year, but that’s pretty good considering Fox had the Super Bowl last year.

One industry sales exec, who did not want to be identified, says the network that has the Super Bowl usually takes in between $30-$50 million more regular season ad dollars because it can make it mandatory for advertisers who only want to buy a Super Bowl unit to also purchase a certain number of regular season units.

Mulcahy says General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are all back at similar spending levels as last season, with Ford returning for its 13th season as title sponsor of the Sunday pregame show. Nissan has also increased its spending.

Other strong categories at Fox, similar to the other networks, are fast food restaurants, movies and electronics/wireless. In addition to Ford, Visa is returning as the halftime show sponsor, while Lowe’s returns as sponsor of the postgame show, The OT.

Mulcahy says the Philadelphia Eagles vs. Dallas Cowboys 4 p.m. Thanksgiving game is almost sold out, and both the NFC playoff games and the NFC championship game are “pretty well sold.”

“I’m comfortable with where we are with our postseason ad sales,” he says.

Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN global customer marketing and sales says the network had a solid upfront and sold more inventory and at higher prices than last season, although he would not give percentages. He says ESPN sells the NFL as part of football packages along with the college regular season, the bowl games, the new postseason playoff games and the college national championship game.

“That has given us extra strength when selling football because we sell it all together,” he says.

Erhardt sees the additional games on CBS as being a potential boon to all the NFL partners. “If the Thursday night games perform well, it will help the rest of the football marketplace,” he says.

The NFL itself has added two new on-field sponsors this season in Bose and Microsoft. Every team’s sideline coaching staff will be using Bose headsets to talk to the coaches in the booth and each headset will be labeled with the Bose name, giving the brand exposure each time a televising network shows a close-up of one of the on the sideline coaches.

Microsoft is for the first time supplying each sideline coaching staff with Surface brand tablets that are heat-proof, rain-proof, cold-proof and viewable in the glaring sun. They also come in a protective case with an attached grip handle so the coaches can hold on to them easier. The tablets will receive and store pictures of formations taken from cameras in the booths.

Renie Anderson, senior VP, sponsorship and partnership management for the NFL says Bose has been a league sponsor for four years but this is its first time on the field. Microsoft became an NFL sponsor last year, which permitted the league to offer NFL content on the Xbox and allowed Microsoft brands to use the NFL logo. This is Microsoft’s first time on the field.

Bose and Microsoft join longtime NFL partner Gatorade among on-field sponsors. Anderson says the on-field sponsors have to offer products that can actually be used during the games.