Hard times can’t sack NFL

Despite ad recession, networks sales blossom

If there were a Vegas point spread for such things, the NFL’s broadcasting partners would be a heavy favorite to have another big year.

Despite a quasi-recessionary ad environment, spot sales for the NFL season have been surprisingly robust. CBS, NBC, Fox, and ESPN have reported sales holding steady from 2007, with high-single-digit cost per thousand increases across the board.

That’s a rosy scenario indeed for the highest-rated sports league — and for its television partners, who shell out a combined $3.7 billion yearly to air the games.

A CPM increase at a time of largely stable ratings for gridiron broadcasters means a bump in unit costs, says Gary Carr, senior veep and director of broadcast services at TargetCast TCM. Upfront spot rates, he reports, are “close to 300K” for Fox and CBS, “in the 300K range” for NBC, and hovering around 250K for ESPN. All the more impressive, he says, in the wake of NBC’s ad-sales bonanza in Beijing.

“This year the Olympics sucked a lot of sports dollars out of the marketplace,” he notes. “Even though it happened in August, it’s still second-half media dollars.”

With a Super Bowl for the ages still fresh in football fans’ memory, the 2008-09 season features plenty of intrigue in the two high-profile franchises in the nation’s biggest media market along with the surprisingly resilient ad-sales picture. It’s no wonder analysts are taking an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance.

“Their biggest challenge is finding room for improvement,” says David Carter, head of Sports Business Institute at USC.

The league’s biggest new storyline emerged a few weeks ago when the small-market Green Bay Packers shipped legendary quarterback Brett Favre to the big-market New York Jets.

In its third season of primetime football, the Peacock could benefit from top market Gotham having two potentially promising franchises: In addition to the three primetime Giants contests already slated, NBC could snag a Jets game under the league’s “flexible scheduling” arrangement whereby meaningful late-season games could be upgraded to the high-profile Sunday night slot.

Most important is the financial and promotional windfall that awaits at season’s end when the net will host its first Super Bowl broadcast in 10 years. After all, Fox was able to charge more than $2.3 million for 30-second spots earlier this year.

Fox, whose national Sunday game is already the highest-rated (including an average 8.0 rating among adults 18-34), is sitting pretty again this season with rights to as many as 10 Giants games as well as 10 featuring the division rivals (and perennial national draw) Dallas Cowboys. The net will present all its games in high-def for the first time.

The Eye, too, will go to all-HD format for its games, but will stick to its just-the-facts style otherwise. “We’re not going to get back to the huddle late,” says production veep Harold Bryant. “We’re not going to throw too many graphics onto the screen.”

CBS, which carries the league’s AFC games, is coming off a strong ratings year (7.5 in the demo, up from 6.6 in the previous four seasons), likely spurred by the New England Patriots’ 16-0 march to the post-season.

It figures to benefit most from Favre’s move to the Jets: As many as a dozen Jets games could air on the Eye.

In cable, for its third year in the Monday-night perch, ESPN is simplifying the content of its game coverage, eschewing celeb broadcast-booth visits and limiting sideline visits, while at the same time upping the quality of its visuals.

“You’re going to see a little more technology rolled out,” says exec veep of production Norby Williamson, alluding to the two pore-scrutinizing 300-frame-per-second cameras that will be in play, in addition to a pair of 180-frame-per-second on-field handhelds. Ads are “tracking as one would expect,” says customer marketing and sales prexy Ed Eberhard. ” ‘Monday Night Football’ actually wins the night across all televisions for much of the night — not just for men and not just for cable.”

But with an eye-popping $1.1 billion-per-year license fee, it needs to rake in a ton of coin, even with coffers enhanced by its hefty cable-subscriber fees, to get to black.

And finally the league’s own network, NFL Network, will air eight games this season, but with a still-severely limited presence. (Even with 41.5 million subs, the net is still not available on Cablevision, Charter, or Time Warner systems.) NFL Net incited the ire of legions of fans last season by withholding a crucial Green Bay-Dallas game from the vast majority of viewers. Thus, its biggest challenge going forward may be finding a way to serve the fan base.

“The issue is can they figure out how to deliver their product without alienating their core audience,” Carter notes.

NFL broadcasting may be a loss leader for at least some of the nets, but it’s sure to continue as a cash cow for the league and its teams (who net in the neighborhood of $120 million per year), making it the only major American sports league, Carter points out, in which broadcast revenue outpaces player salaries.

“Its consistency of delivery is why there’s always significant demand and always a good rate,” observes Bill Carroll, veep and director of programming at Katz television group. “So if you’re trying to reach men, the NFL is the way to go.”