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MBPT Spotlight: Networks Have Sold Out Nearly 90% Of NFL Inventory; Fox Says Super Bowl Buys Will Wrap By Thanksgiving

The NFL's TV rights holders are scoring big-time with 2013 regular season ad sales, and the novel cold-weather Super Bowl on Fox next February is on an accelerated pace.

Two weeks before the Sept. 5 opening NFL Kickoff game on NBC, all of the networks are between 85%-90% sold out. Super Bowl XLVIII, which will be played in New Jersey's open-air Met Life Stadium, has less than 10 ad units left. NBC already has taken in 5% more ad revenue for Sunday Night Football than it recorded for the entire 2012 season.

"Nothing on television comes close to the ratings the NFL generates week after week," said John Bogusz, executive VP of sales and marketing at CBS Sports. "The ratings levels are constant and have held up consistently over the past five or six years."

Ed Erhardt, president of global marketing and sales for ESPN, added that as a result of the broad audience reach of the game telecasts, "The NFL continues to attract a wide swath of advertisers in just about every category."

Neil Mulcahy, executive VP of Fox Sports sales, said the network expects to finalize a few more Super Bowl deals this week, which will leave the network with only between 6 to 8 of the approximate 68 in-game ad units still available for sale.

Even with Fox selling Super Bowl commercials only to marketers who bought packages in other Fox sports properties, including the just premiered new cable sports network Fox Sports 1, most of the units were sold during the recent sports upfront.

"The past years of waiting until right before the Super Bowl to buy the remaining few units are gone," Mulcahy said. "We will sell out the Super Bowl before Thanksgiving."

Mulcahy would not discuss Super Bowl ad pricing, nor would media buyers, but it is expected that Fox will average more than the $3.8 million per unit that CBS took in for the 2013 game. "Our goal is to be sold out early and to get a fair price for a telecast that is the No. 1 event in the country each year."

Mulcahy acknowledged that his sales teams have tied in the sale of Super Bowl units into packages of advertising on other Fox sports properties.

"We have a lot of sports buckets to fill, especially with the new Fox Sports 1 network," Mulcahy said. "We have been working with advertisers and their agencies. If they have a Super Bowl need, not only for game units but for advertising in programming surrounding the Super Bowl telecast, we can work on ways to accommodate them if they buy other Fox sports inventory like the MLB playoffs, college football and regular season NFL."

Mulcahy said most of the advertisers in the Super Bowl are returning from last year's game, but he added that there are "about three or four new advertisers," which he would not disclose. He also said there would be a heavy auto advertiser presence in the game telecast.

Fox regular season NFL game telecasts are about 85% sold out at unit price increases that were just below last year's average increase of 9%. He said the six Fox opening weekend games, including the Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers game are "pretty much sold out."

"We're a lot better sold out for our September games this year than we have been in the past," Mulcahy said.

NBC, still scuffling in most other programming realms, controls a Sunday Night Football franchise that remains a major force. It averaged 21.4 million viewers and an 8.2 18-49 demo rating last season in primetime and gained through the season. The peak came with 30.3 million viewers and a 10. 5 demo rating in the final regular season contest, which saw the Washington Redskins defeat the Dallas Cowboys to clinch the NFC East title.

Seth Winter, executive VP, sales and marketing, NBC Sports Group, said the network is 90% sold out of its regular season NFL inventory and has already exceeded its ad sales revenue from last year's regular season by 5%.

In addition to its Sunday night games, NBC gets to televise the opening night Thursday NFL Kickoff game each year. Winter said this year's game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 5 is sold out and the first few Sunday night games are also close to ad sellouts.

NBC's Thanksgiving night game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens has about 10 ad units left, Winter said.

Winter said the two games with the most units available right now are the Dec. 22 and Dec. 29 games, along with NBC's two wild card playoff game telecasts.

NBC did better than the other networks as far as price increases for this season, getting low double-digit price hikes for advertisers who did not have multi-year deals that locked in prices, Winter said.

Media buyers said NBC was able to score higher price increases by selling its NFL ad inventory in conjunction with all of NBCUniversal's entertainment network properties, and by refusing to budge on its stated price hikes.

"NBC dug its heels in the sand this year on its NFL pricing," said Kevin Collins, senior VP and director of national broadcast at media agency Initiative. "NFL sales moved together with the other broadcast dayparts and wouldn't budge on their asking price. Some clients moved money into the other networks' NFL telecasts but others paid the price."

Collins said his bigger clients like MillerCoors and Hyundai continue to have a major presence in Sunday Night Football and those with multiyear deals were in good shape.

"This was not the year to lay down a base of ad dollars with NBC," he said.

CBS's Bogusz said his network is about 85% sold out of its NFL inventory at high single digit increases, and that the CBS September NFL games "are very tight" in terms of available ad inventory. Bogusz also said that some games in early October are sold out, but "we are still in sale with fourth quarter NFL inventory."

ESPN's Erhardt would not discuss sellout levels or pricing of NFL inventory on Monday Night Football, but said sales have been "very robust, we have very little inventory left."

Erhardt said because ESPN has less game inventory to sell than the other networks, "we also hold some back for scatter."

He also said in addition to MNF, ESPN has done very well selling NFL-related inventory across all of the the ESPN platforms, particularly digital. "While we have no NFL games on Sunday, we do have a full day of NFL related programming and most of that is sold out," he said. "We also do well selling our fantasy football sites online. Our NFL sales are multiplatform instead of just TV."

College Football

Beyond the pro game, ad sales for college football telecasts on CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN are also shaping up strongly.

Bogusz says CBS's SEC telecasts are 90% sold out.

"The SEC has been a phenomenal conference, winning the last seven national championships," he said.

While most of the SEC telecast advertisers are similar to those in the NFL games, Bogusz says there are some like QSRs Sonic and Chick-fil-A that are big college game advertisers.

Initiative's Collins says while there are many more college games televised and, therefore, more rating points that can dilute pricing, "there is still strong demand by advertisers for college football, and for the SEC in particular."

NBC will televise seven Notre Dame games this season and Winter says advertising for those telecasts is about 90% sold. Winter says it doesn't hurt that Notre Dame is coming off a national championship game appearance.

"Our biggest issue is not having enough games but there is enough marketplace demand," Winter said. "Next to the NFL, college football is the second most popular sport among advertisers."

NBC earlier this year extended its TV rights deal with Notre Dame for 10 more years through 2015. Last season the Notre Dame telecasts on NBC averaged 4.4 million viewers.

Winter said NBC Sports works in conjunction with Notre Dame to sell integrated sponsorship opportunities for advertisers beyond just TV. He said some of the major advertisers with integrated sponsorships include Sprint, Coca-Cola and Adidas.

Fox will televise more than 50 college games this season on the broadcast network and on Fox Sports 1. The company will televise four games on FS1 on Saturdays, and once again a Saturday night primetime game on Fox. He said most of the Fox primetime games are close to sold out.

"We're seeing the same strength in our college football sales as we are with the NFL," ESPN's Erhardt said.

In addition to its regular season college game telecasts, ESPN televises 35 Bowl Games including the national championship game and Erhardt said most advertisers are buying packages that include regular season and all of the Bowls.

The NCAA has approved a new format for determining a national champion that will include a four team playoff beginning in 2014, and Erhardt said his sales teams are already talking to advertisers about how the network plans to sell advertising for those telecasts.

One media buyer commenting on the popularity of college football among advertisers said, "ESPN creates college bowl games to bring in new sponsors. Bowls like the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl and the Beef ‘O' Brady's Bowl. They always seem to find advertisers to sponsor them."

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