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Super Bowl: NBC Sees Slowdown In Ad Sales

Analysis: Has Madison Avenue's recently cooled view of TV advertising affected even the biggest media property available?

The Super Bowl remains the biggest annual TV event in the United States, but advertisers are not flocking to it in 2015 as they did last year.

With less than a month to go before NBC’s broadcast of the kickoff of Super Bowl XLIX from Phoenix on Febuary 1, the network has sold 95% of its advertising inventory, and has “literally, a handful of availabilities left,” said Seth Winter, exec VP of sales and sales marketing for NBCUniversal’s sports and news programming, while speaking with reporters Wednesday. Fox, which broadcast last year’s game, was able to sell its entire ad inventory for the event by Thanksgiving of 2013.

NBC expects to sell out by the time the game starts, but the fact that a few spots remain for sale so close to the broadcast suggests Madison Avenue is cooling somewhat on the nation’s biggest and most far-reaching media property. NBC is seeking a record price for 30 seconds of ad time in the broadcast: between $4.4 million and $4.5 million, depending on the number of units purchased. As part of the deal, NBC has been seeking a similar amount from each advertiser for other ad inventory in NBC Sports properties.

Advertiser sentiment around the Super Bowl seems to echo similar questions surrounding TV advertising in general.  TV’s upfront marketplace, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season, proved lackluster in 2014, with both broadcast and cable networks securing fewer advance advertising commitments for their schedule than in the previous year (NBC was the only network to secure more). Since that time, several media companies have spoken openly about a dampened advertising marketplace, citing everything from advertiser desire to hold ad spending until the last possible moment to new interest by marketers in digital and social-media outlets that have gained traction with consumers.

Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII reached 111.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen, making it the most-watched event television event in U.S. history — despite a lopsided victory by the Seattle Seahawks over the Denver Broncos. Fox’s 2014 telecast trumped the ratings set by CBS’ 2013 broadcast, which reached 108.69 million viewers, even when it was interrupted by a power outage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Winter cited a lackluster response from automotive marketers, who have crammed the  Super Bowl with enough ads in recent years to turn the event into an advertising parking lot, of sorts. In 2014, 11 different car ads from eight different companies filled the Super Bowl broadcast, according to data from Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. NBC expects to have just half of the car ads it sported when it last broadcast the Super Bowl in 2012, when Kantar said 16 different ads for vehicles crammed the roster.

Demand for football had not been dampened by the National Football League’s response this season to domestic-violence issues with some of its players, the executive said. One potential football sponsor “got queasy,” Winter said, and “that particular company has not participated.” But other advertisers “still support the teams, and with the NFL’s decisive, proactive approach, most advertisers feel that they are correcting what were some significant issues.”

NBCUniversal is not disappointed in its sales process so far, said Winter, noting that 15 rookie sponsors would fill the game’s ad ranks. “We expect to be sold out by the time kickoff takes place in Phoenix,” he said. NBCUniversal “will be at or exceed our sales goal for this game.”

Super Bowl XLIX already has a phalanx of sponsors, some popular, some relatively unknown. Two of the event’s most stalwart supporters, Anheuser-Busch and Pepsi, will return to the game. Anheuser has unveiled plans to run seven 30-second units, while Pepsi will sponsor the halftime show and has secured traditional ad time for its Doritos chips. Other veteran supporters include Coca-Cola, Toyota, Nationwide Insurance, GoDaddy and Mercedes-Benz.

Rookie sponsors include Avocados From Mexico; cruise-operator Carnival Corp.; Super Glue maker Loctite; and Smartphone accessories maker Mophie. An ad for Skittles will also debut in this year’s contest, but the fruit-flavored candy’s maker, Mars Inc., has long run ads in the game.

First-time advertisers can sometimes develop commercials that don’t fit the tone of the game; have low production values; or, at worst, offend viewers. But Winter said NBC had examined storyboards and other elements of all the ads being produced for the game and did not anticipate problems.

He said beverages, movies and fast food were among the categories that would be strong in the Super Bowl. Technology and wireless advertisers. meanwhile, look weaker than usual, along with cars.

The National Football League typically limits the network that’s broadcasting the Super Bowl to around 65 30-second national commercials – representing about 32 minutes and 30 seconds’ worth of time (not including network promos and local-station advertising). Until the kickoff takes place, however, there’s always the thought among TV ad-sales executives that room exists for just one more.

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