Stations Rack Up Super Bowl Ads

Super Bowl XLIV, airing on CBS next month, is expected to bring the network an estimated $200 million in ad revenue. But it is also shaping up to serve as a much-needed shot in the arm on the station level. The network's owned-and-operated stations, together with the affiliates, have been pitching local ad buys in the annual NFL championship to a much wider circle of advertisers than Super Bowl broadcasters have in the past, making the most of an opportunity that comes to CBS once every three years.

Stations are targeting marketers that are looking for Super Bowl exposure while avoiding the national commercial price tag, which runs between $2.5 and $2.8 million on CBS network for a 30-second spot. Marketers can work around the big-ticket national network buy by purchasing market to market. A company can become a Super Bowl advertiser for as little as $100,000 for a 30-second spot in the Atlanta market; on the high end, they can get a spot in a major market such as New York for close to $700,000, according to figures from both buy- and sell-side executives.

This year's game appears to be attracting much more activity than usual on the local front because of stronger pricing in national, according to Peter Gusmano, managing partner and director of client service for GroupM Matrix. Gusmano suggests that NBC sold many spots at below the $3 million rate card reported last year. He says that those spots sold for between $2 million and $2.5 million. However, all broadcasters discount and package spots according to a host of factors, such as which quarter and which ad break they run in. “Last year, the deal was so great that locally we didn't have as much activity,” says Gusmano, whose client American Family Insurance bought the Super Bowl on a local basis this year, as did Cellular South.

Local affiliates gain 11 or more spots to sell during the Super Bowl than their network time usually allows, with as many as five of those commercials in-game and the rest in pre- and post-programming.

Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama made history in 2008 with a giant local Super Bowl ad buy, snapping up airtime in 24 markets to make his case. In 1999, Heineken bought spots in top markets across the country to thwart Anheuser-Busch's traditional domination of the Super Bowl. Anheuser-Busch has long-term deals and category exclusivity in the game.

Bonus for local markets

Kirk Black, senior VP and general manager of WGCL-TV Atlanta, a Meredith-owned CBS affiliate, explains why the Super Bowl is such a bonus for the local markets. “It does bring a different type of advertiser that we might not normally have had; people who are launching a new product or strengthening a current offering,” he says. “It's for advertisers who are looking to create a huge impression in the market. Buying spots in a big market is another way to get exposure if the network is sold out.”

Honda crashes competitors' buys

Santa Monica-based ad agency RPA is doing exactly that this year for Honda Motor's luxury brand Acura. Lisa Pilger, VP and director of local media at RPA, explains the strategy: “Acura is one of the major auto companies whose sales are more concentrated in the top markets. [The local buy] allows us a great presence in a male-oriented event without doing it at the network level with the waste.”

Honda's local buying strategy for Acura goes head to head with other auto advertisers that have paid for national spots in the big game. They include Audi, Chrysler's Dodge, Hyundai, Kia and Volkswagen. The Honda brand will also have a spot in the game.

Pilger negotiated the local buy through individual stations in top markets as part of deals concluded during the May upfront market. Pilger wasn't able to detail pricing since the buy was part of an overall package including many other programs. “We could have done a deal with the O&O group, but we worked directly with stations that have their own inventory,” she says. Local Super Bowl buys also involve a fair amount of guesswork about which teams will land in the big game, and the ultimate price is contingent on knowing which teams get there.

Having a matchup between teams from big markets where the host broadcaster owns an affiliate yields the best ad revenue prospects. Last year's Super Bowl on NBC pitted the Arizona Cardinals against the Pittsburgh Steelers, markets No. 12 and No. 23; the previous year's Super Bowl on Fox, between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, represented markets No. 1 and No. 7. UBS analyst Mike Morris suggests that CBS stations will get a $25 million lift in ad revenue, a result of Super Bowl local buys.

Sharing the Field With the Olympics

While the Super Bowl is an asset for stations that get to broadcast the event as part of their affiliate agreements, it isn't a simple sell. “It is a significant [positive] revenue impact for Atlanta,” Black says, “but the Olympics are also in that month and there have been some battles for ad dollars.” He points out that the Olympics are a slightly different proposition for advertisers since they're spread out over two weeks rather than the single Sunday event, though both fall in the same month. The Super Bowl happens on Feb. 7 in Miami; the Vancouver Winter Games begin Feb. 12.

Still, marketers can hardly ignore the results of a Nielsen Homescan panel of 25,000 households suggesting that 51% of respondents enjoy the commercials on the game more than they do the football. Nielsen's Randall Beard, executive VP of Nielsen IAG, which measures ad engagement, said in a statement, “This survey reinforces the value of the Super Bowl as a marketing bonanza, featuring one of the most receptive TV audiences in the world.”

Beyond ad sales, the Super Bowl offers stations the chance to promote their own lineups, alongside the promotions for CBS' network shows. “We've been an underachieving affiliate for a lot of years,” Black says. “There are obviously two big pieces; it's an opportunity to drive revenue up from the previous year, and it's an opportunity to recruit viewers. We've started to gain momentum with late news, and we're really pointing to that daypart to expose messages of our news products to people who would never normally watch the station.”