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MBPT Spotlight: NFL Telecasts Continue to Be Ad Juggernaut

Are you ready for some football? Marketers surely are. They have been buying up NFL ad inventory at a rapid pace with all the league's TV partner networks' sales levels surpassing last season at this point.

NBC's primetime broadcasts are approaching 90% sold for the season, up from the mid-80% level last year, while the other networks are in the 85% sellout range, also higher than last season.

Seth Winter, executive VP, sales and marketing for NBC Sports Group, says ad sales for the upcoming season of Sunday Night Football are the strongest since the network began carrying football in primetime in 2006. "We've had by far our best NFL upfront ever," Winter says. "It's been incredibly healthy. We've had to turn some business away."

Automotive ad sales have been so strong, Winter says, that the telecasts are sold out for the regular season in the category and the sports sales team has had to turn advertisers away. Meanwhile, each of the other networks report auto as being their top selling category, eclipsing last year’s ad dollars.

Other strong categories include movies, insurance and fast food restaurants. However, another category has taken the networks by surprise in a very positive way, not only bringing in a large chunk of new ad dollars, but also tightening up inventory which tends to hike up pricing a bit.

That wild card is the daily fantasy sports category which includes the two major competitors – Draft Kings and Fan Duel. Sources tell MPBT that each of those companies in the NFL upfront have committed to spending between $25 million and $30 million per network this football regular season. NFL Network is also getting a lesser amount of ad dollars from both for its eight-game package.

Altogether, the two fantasy sports operators have invested more than $200 million in ad dollars in NFL games televised on CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and NFL Network, sources say.

“Draft Kings and Fan Duel have absolutely tightened up the commercial inventory situation and brought in large amounts of ad dollars for all the networks,” says one media buyer.

Neil Mulcahy, executive VP of Fox Sports ad sales, believes the growing popularity of daily fantasy sports gaming is not only bringing in more ad dollars for the NFL telecasts, but he is expecting more viewers to tune into the games this season to help in selecting their fantasy teams and to follow the players and their stats during the games.

NBC’s Winter says the daily fantasy gaming category “has been an epiphany for all of us.” And he, like Mulcahy, believes as more people start playing, more companies will start up and the ad dollars over the next few years “will become more prolific.”

Buyers say NBC has gotten slightly higher pricing for its inventory because the telecasts are in primetime on Sunday night when more casual fans tune in to watch. “The NBC telecasts get a little different demographic mix beyond the typical football fan,” one buyer says. “NBC also has less inventory to sell than Fox or CBS.”

CBS is also again televising eight games on Thursday nights in primetime, and while those telecasts will get higher pricing, overall it is averaged in with its Sunday games.

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.

Fox’s Mulcahy says what has drawn added interest to Fox’s Sunday early and late afternoon NFL games is the family viewing aspects. “Lots of families tend to watch the games together on Sundays and this is attractive to advertisers,” he says.

Mulcahy says because Fox televises the NFC games, the telecasts follow teams in eight of the top 10 markets and 10 of the top 15. One buyer says that matters to many advertisers. “Size of the markets watching the NFL games is important to many advertisers who want to reach a mass audience in the major cities rather than in some of the smaller markets,” he says.

That buyer adds that more marketers are buying the NFL to reach women. “You can reach more women in most NFL games than you can in women specific programming on the broadcast or cable networks,” he says.

While the economy may appear to be floundering, the financial category has also seen increased spending in NFL telecasts for the upcoming season. Mulcahy said financial advertisers spending on Fox is matching the higher levels that were being spent three or four years ago.

All the major sponsors are also back for the NFL on Fox – Ford for the pregame show, Visa for halftime and Lowe’s for the network’s OT post-game show.

Fox is also moving its FS1 NFL Kickoff pregame show to the broadcast network where it will air between 11 a.m. and 12 noon leading into the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show. Charissa Thompson, Randy Moss and Colin Cowherd are expected to be regulars on the show.

The move will mean the show will most likely draw more viewers than it did on the cable network and will not only give the network more inventory to sell, but it will be able to sell it at a higher price.

At CBS, John Bogusz, executive VP of sports sales and marketing, says the network is “pacing well ahead of last year for the regular Sunday season and on Thursday nights.” He adds, “we are tighter in September than we were last year, but we still have some inventory left.”

In its partnership with NFL Network on the Thursday night telecasts, CBS televises games during the first eight weeks of the season and its sales staff sells that inventory, although the games are simulcast on NFL Network. The same ads appear on both telecasts. For the final eight weeks, the games appear exclusively on NFL Network and its sales team sells that ad inventory.

Jim Nance and Phil Simms will again be in the announcing booth for all 16 Thursday night telecasts with the games being produced by CBS Sports.

Brian Matthews, senior VP of media sales for the NFL, says Lexus is back as sponsor of the halftime show for both segments of Thursday Night Football, while Mazda is returning as post-game show sponsor.

Matthews says NFL network is ahead of its sellout levels of last season, with auto, movies, retail and QSR being particularly strong. A new big spender is Hyundai which replaced General Motors as the official NFL sponsor in the automotive category.

While last season’s entire Thursday Night Football package was up 52% over 2013, when the NFL Network was the only network to carry the Thursday night games, NFL Network Thursday night viewership last season was up a solid 11% for the second half of the season.

All the NFL Network games last season top the Thursday night viewer charts for cable, and during the first eight games that were simulcast, NFL Network was the most-watched cable network on the night four times.

Matthews says most of the packages NFL Network is selling includes ad inventory beyond just the game telecasts, and include other major events on the network like the NFL Combines and NFL Draft telecasts, as well as the network’s original unscripted programming.

Eric Johnson, executive VP of global multimedia sales for ESPN customer marketing and sales group, says 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 says. “Not only was our NFL upfront selling strong, but we’ve continued to sell NFL advertising in scatter.”

Johnson said the network’s main NFL sponsors are also all returning – General Motors for pre-kickoff sponsor, Toyota at halftime and Snickers as sponsor of the networks NFL Sunday Countdown show.

In addition to selling inventory in the TV game telecast, Johnson says the ESPN sales team is also selling NFL ad packages across all the network’s platforms.

“Our strategy is to take the live conversation from the game and move it from TV to digital and then to flood all our screens with opportunities for advertisers,” Johnson says. “Almost all of our advertisers are buying packages across multiple screens.”

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

So what do the network sales executives have to say about the continued vitality of NFL game telecast ad sales?

NBC’s Winter calls NFL live game telecasts “a juggernaut.” Fox’s Mulcahy calls them “a locomotive.” ESPN’s Johnson says, “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.”

Finally one media buyer, who didn’t want to be identified because he has to negotiate deals with the networks and doesn’t want to be seen as a cheerleader for the NFL telecasts said, “The NFL games are the most stable and guaranteed mass audience programming, week after week, on television. They are a phenomenon.”