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Super Bowl Ads Sell Out Early For First Time in Five Years

Madison Avenue is giving new consideration to the Super Bowl, the annual media extravaganza that it has seemed less excited about in recent years.

Fox Sports has sold all its available commercial inventory in Super Bowl LIV, slated to be broadcast from Miami Gardens, Florida, on February 2, 2020. It’s the first time in half a decade that the network showing the big game hasn’t had to go down to the wire to dispense with its high-priced ad slots, and suggests advertisers have found new appeal in the live telecast in an era when most of TV’s best-known programming has a significant component of on-demand viewership.

“We have sold all of our in-game inventory in the Super Bowl,” says Seth Winter, Fox’s executive vice president of sports sales. “There are a number of advertisers, frankly, who couldn’t land their spots with us because their creative wasn’t ready or because of some indecisiveness, so we are going to go to pre- and post-game inventory to land their units.”

Fox has been selling 30-second ads in the event for between “north of $5 million” to as much as $5.6 million, Winter says. In contrast, CBS sought between $5.1 million and $5.3 million for a package of inventory in its 2019 broadcast of the event. Meanwhile, Fox is seeking between $2 million and $3 million for the most expensive advertising slots in its pre- and post-game coverage.

Several factors have played in the network’s favor. Winter cited a robust economy underpinning advertisers’ desire to get into the game, along with a plan unveiled by the National Football League and Fox in May that called for the elimination of one commercial break in each of the Super Bowl’s four quarters. When fans watch the game next year, each quarter will have four ad breaks, not the five that had been the norm.

And while Fox is still selling the same number of ad berths  – the four remaining commercial breaks will be longer than they have in the past – the network will have fewer of the first and last slots to pass along. Those positions, often known as “A” and “Z,” tend to be the ones advertisers believe stand out most to viewers.

“There will be four fewer A’s and four fewer Z’s,” says Winter. “And that piques advertisers’ interest and encourages them to invest in their commercials early to secure premium inventory.”

While the Super Bowl continues to generate outsize viewership, it has in recent years become a much harder sell. Not too long ago, the network showing the game could bank on selling all of its inventory by early autumn. In recent years, that has not been the case.

CBS did not declare a sell out of commercial inventory in this year’s broadcast of Super Bowl LII until February 1. The game aired February 3. In 2018, NBC landed last-minute ad buys from Toyota and Wix.com on the Friday afternoon before its Sunday broadcast of Super Bowl LII. In 2017, Fox declined to say on the afternoon of its broadcast of Super Bowl LI whether it was sold out or not; the network had faced a tough sales process that year and had many slots available in the second-half of the game available in the weeks leading up to the event.

Indeed, a network has not declared sell out of all of its Super Bowl inventory well ahead of the game since 2013, when Fox announced sell-out in December of that year for its 2014 broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII.

One of the main reasons for the slowdown has been the rise of “Thursday Night Football.” In 2014, the NFL started selling the rights to telecast its Thursday-night game package to the networks, and steadily increased rights to clips and streams to digital players like Amazon. As a result, advertisers had many more hours of pigskin available to them —at significantly lower costs than a Super Bowl berth.

In the interim, the price of a slot in the game has risen exponentially. A 30-second ad priced at $5.6 million in 2020 would cost 107% more than its equivalent in 2008, when a 30-second ad cost a mere $2.7 million, according to data from Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending.

Despite recent ratings erosion in Super Bowl viewership  – the 2019 broadcast reached an average of approximately 98.2 million viewers, a slip of 5% from the previous year – advertisers still have interest in the media bacchanal. At a time when more viewers of primetime entertainment programming are migrating to watching those shows hours or days later, big-audience sports events continue to snare the large crowds Madison Avenue needs to generate awareness and purchase intent. Ads in the game also spark reaction in social-media channels.

The early sell-out marks a victory for Fox, which has bet more heavily on sports programming since selling the bulk of its cable-and-studio assets to Walt Disney for $71.3 billion. The Fox Corporation is a much smaller entity than its predecessor company, and its Fox News Media unit generates most of its operating profit. A Super Bowl can change the course of a fiscal year. CBS earlier this year said that its first-quarter ad revenue soared 18%, boosted by its 2019 Super Bowl broadcast. Comcast disclosed earlier this year that NBC’s 2018 broadcast of Super Bowl LII brought in $423 million in revenue.

Fox’s Super Bowl process has been supervised by a new ad-sales team. Winter, a veteran of NBC Sports and its efforts to sell the Olympics and past Super Bowls to advertisers, came on board earlier this year. He reports to Marianne Gambelli, another former NBC executive who was named to lead Fox Corp. ad sales in 2018.

To convince advertisers to buy the big event, Winter and his team provided clients with data that showed audience levels in each minute of past games, a move that he says helped sponsors understand what sort of impact different game positions might have. “There are any number of interpretations of what’s the best place to be in the game, so we provide the research they want that helps guide them,” he says.

Fox also made clear that it had no intentions of lowering prices as the game drew closer. “We had consistent transparency around pricing,” Winter says. “We were never going to fire-sale the inventory, so I think people realized that waiting around was going to be to their detriment, not their benefit.”

The ad-sales executive says Fox saw demand from auto manufacturers, entertainment companies, technology marketers, financial-services advertisers, makers of consumer products and beverage companies. He predicts viewers will likely see trailers from movie studios and streaming-video services. And he says a handful of slots were purchased by “Super Bowl anomalies,” or advertisers not normally associated with the gridiron classic.

As is often the case, viewers  can expect to commercials that surprise and break convention.  “You are going to see a lot of longform,” Winter says, with some ads lasting more than a minute.

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