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Networks Experimenting With Spots During NFL Games

With ratings dropping, National Football League game telecasts have been a high-profile laboratory for new types of commercials.

Before the season, the once-rigid league worked with its television partners to create fewer but longer commercial breaks during games in hopes of keeping fans still tuned in without reducing the number of spots the networks have to sell.

On top of that, the NFL is letting the networks execute a playbook that includes picture-in-picture executions, spots that appear in unplanned breaks in game action and even six-second spots.

With ratings under pressure as consumers move to commercial-free services such as Netflix and Amazon, TV executives have been talking about improving the viewing experience by reducing interruptions in programming.

The moves are also important for advertisers, who are paying top dollar for spots in NFL games, which despite the declines still dominate the list of most-watched TV programs.

Despite those lower ratings, network ad revenue from NFL broadcasts was up in October and November, according to research company Standard Media Index. That might be changing as audience shortfall increases the need for make-good ads. Ads in NFL games cost about $500,000 per 30 seconds and the networks hope more attention-getting executions will draw premium prices.

“In cooperation with our league partners, we’re committed to innovating on behalf of advertisers, who want to evolve their methods of connecting clearly and loudly with consumers,” Dan Lovinger, executive VP, advertising sales, NBC Sports Group, said.

Doubling Down on New Options

One of the new things NBC has been doing this season is what it calls the Coach’s Challenge Double Box. In one box on screen, viewers can tune in as officials watch an instant replay to review a call on the field. One the other side, a commercial plays, with audio. NBC has done this several times this season with sponsors including Microsoft and Bose, and plans at least one more showing during the regular season.

NBC has also been ending some commercial breaks with custom content for an advertiser that leads viewers back to game coverage.

Over Thanksgiving, Fox made a lot of noise running nine of its six-second spots during a game between the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings. The short spots ran in naturally occurring breaks in the game and replaced one of the 2-minute, 20-second breaks that normally air during a game.

CBS is also planning to test six-second spots in-game before the end of the season, according to John Bogusz, executive VP for sports sales.

“A lot of the research we’ve gotten back, not surprisingly, from a memorability standpoint, and a likeability standpoint and a recall standpoint has been really positive,” Mark Evans, senior VP for ad sales at Fox Networks Group, said. Fox plans to share its research with the advertising community.

The NFL is also looking at the research on the six-second ads before deciding whether or not to let the experiment continue. In the meantime, Fox will be running six-second ads as part of the traditional commercial breaks — mostly at the very beginning or very end of the breaks. Fox has also run six-second spots for FedEx during its pre-kickoff coverage.

Evans said the effectiveness of six-second ads will increase as advertisers and their agencies become more accustomed to them and find better ways to apply storytelling and messaging techniques.

He adds that there’s no magic to the six-second length. The network is willing to sell spots in whatever length an advertiser might think it needs to deliver its sales pitch.

“We’re open to anything. We’re getting asked about, ‘Will you do a 10-second spot? Will you do an 18-second spot?’ ” Evans said. “We’re open to innovate at any length, if we can make the business terms work out.”

During the season CBS network has also been doing double-box executions during NFL games.

“The idea is to maintain more viewability, less commercial disruption and have a better overall experience,” Bogusz said. “Now we will see. It’s termed an experiment because some may work, some may not.”

Countdown Driver

Since the start of the season, ESPN has been doing what it calls a “transitional unit” for Toyota. It’s a double-box unit that starts at the end of the second quarter, with one box showing the players leaving the field while the other features a countdown to the beginning of the halftime show, which is sponsored by Toyota.

“Toyota has been a longtime halftime partner for us so we were excited to be able to do something different to transition out of the game and into the halftime report,” Deidra Maddock, VP of sports marketing at ESPN, said.

Maddock said ESPN has been able to work with both official NFL sponsors and non-official sponsors as it experiments with ad formats and in-game promotions

ESPN has created in-game features for official league sponsors Nationwide and USAA that get squeezed into the telecast between plays.

Nationwide sponsors the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award and during Monday Night Football each week, it does a short feature on a candidate for the award from one of the teams in the game.

For USAA, it does a “salute to service” feature highlighting a player on one of the teams who served in uniform or has close ties with the military community.

Non-official sponsors, including Old Navy, Maui Jim and State Farm, have sponsored the in-game highlight packages Total Replay and Timeline. ESPN has also recently started airing five-second spots during MNF for Duracell.

All of the networks have also been doing what is called floating breaks. When there’s a break in the action, the network will air a single commercial and let viewers know they’ll be back in 30 seconds. The floating break is designed not to be enough time for a viewer to change the channel or leave the couch.

“It’s an isolated pod, so it’s just one advertiser at a time, which is definitely a value-add proposition for the client,” Maddock said.

After the season, the networks and the league will get together to discuss the results of the experiments. In the meantime, the NFL remains an attractive advertising vehicle.

“It’s still No. 1 at reaching the largest mass audience out there,” Bogusz said.