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Super Bowl Ads: Fox Won’t Say if Big Game Is Sold Out

Will Super Bowl viewers see as many Super Bowl ads as they possibly can?

A spokesman for Fox Networks Group declined to say Sunday whether Fox had sold out all of its Super Bowl advertising inventory. This marks the second year in a row that the network broadcasting the game did not claim a sell-out of Super Bowl commercial inventory. The NFL’s championship game is typically the most-watched TV broadcast of the year and features 60 to 70 national 30-second ads placed in support of the glitzy event.

Fox had “less than a handful” of 30-second slots available on Monday, Bruce Lefkowitz, executive VP of ad sales for For Networks Group, told Variety earlier this week. “We are on the goal line, and getting ready to punt it in,” he said.

As of Sunday afternoon, however, there is no confirmation that Fox has reached its goal.

Millions of dollars are at stake. CBS last year scored $445 million in pre-game, in-game, and post-game advertising for Super Bowl 50, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending, about 7% more than NBC grabbed for its Super Bowl broadcast in 2015. Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, is expected to hold a conference call with Wall Street analysts to discuss the conglom’s fiscal second-quarter earnings, and it’s possible executives will be pressed on the network’s Super Bowl haul.

Super Bowl ads are among the most coveted of commercial properties, owing to the tens of millions of viewers the event attracts each year. And yet, they have gotten harder to sell, owing, perhaps, to significant hikes in the price. The average cost of an ad in the Super Bowl has risen 76% over the last ten years, according to Kantar.

In 2006, the average cost of a 30-second Super Bowl spot was around $2.5 million. CBS last year sought prices between $4.5 million to more than $5 million, according to people familiar with the talks. Fox has been seeking more than $5 million for a 30-second ad in Super Bowl LI, according to media buyers and other executives familiar with the situation.

The price of an ad in the game is only one of several elements a Super Bowl sponsor must consider. Advertisers often must spend the same amount they are paying for the in-game commercial on other ad inventory the network wants to sell. More advertisers are considering buying inventory in a digital live-stream of the game. And then there’s the cost of producing the Super Bowl commercial itself, which often requires celebrity appearances, special effects, and costly music licensing fees for hit songs. Overall costs of securing a Super Bowl berth these days can easily top $10 million.

There are other reasons why Fox may not be able to declare immediate victory. There are behind-the-scenes nuances to contend with, including moving advertisers around at the last minute to accommodate a variety of developments. The broadcaster may also hold time until the last moments before the game, in hopes that an eleventh-hour advertiser will consent to pay top dollar to get in the game.

Whatever the cause, the TV networks seem less eager to toot their horn on ad-sales performance for the game. The last time a network declared it had sold out came in 2015, when NBC acknowledged publicly that it faced a tougher-than-normal slog in its effort to sell ad time for Super Bowl XLIX.

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