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TV Networks Hope NFL Ratings Will Bring New Ad Dollars in Fall

The Super Bowl ended a little more than a week ago, but some TV networks are already making plans to sell NFL football ads for next fall.

“We are seeing a much earlier level of push and interest in getting things done,” says Dan Lovinger, executive vice president of advertising sales for NBC Sports Group, in an interview. Other networks that have football rights suggest they are also eager to sell. A spokeswoman for Disney Advertising Sales says ESPN is seeing “ increased demand” in categories such as fast food, technology, financial services, consumer packaged goods and insurance for both college football and “Monday Night Football.” CBS executives believe NFL games will see “renewed interest” next season, according to a person familiar with the matter. Fox Sports, which will broadcast the Super Bowl in 2020, declined to comment.

The optimism springs from better-than-expected ratings for football broadcasts this season. After dipping in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 TV seasons, ratings for games in the regular NFL season were up approximately 5% over the previous year. The overall NFL audience fell 10% in 2017 and 8% in 2016. according to Nielsen figures. This season’s ratings boost doesn’t come close to putting the games back on par with top viewership levels, but it does give the networks something to use in coming negotiations. The TV industry’s annual “upfront” sales market, when TV companies try to sell the bulk of their commercial inventory, usually starts in May.

Selling football is paramount for many of the nation’s big media companies. Comcast, CBS, Walt Disney and 21st Century Fox all hold rights to broadcast football and the cost of a 30-second ad in their games are among the highest-prices TV inventory all year.  The average cost of a 30-second spot in this season’s “Sunday Night Football”came to $670,846, according to media buyers, and prices can range from the high $500,000s to more than $1 million, according to people familiar with negotiations for football inventory. Prices tend to be costly for Sunday-afternoon games on Fox and CBS, as well.

NBCU’s Lovinger credits recent interest to an influx of rising young players in NFL play as well as a diminishing of focus on players’ at-game protests that became a national issue in the 2017 season. “There is a much earlier sense of interest and need than we’ve seen in the past” from advertisers, says Lovinger.

Media buying executives caution that football deals typically don’t get done until well into upfront talks. At this time of year, most networks are typically sewing up details on multi-year contracts that have already been established and hashing out details of halftime sponsorships, in-game billboards and the like.

Buying executives say they don’t feel any sense of urgency to get deals done ahead of the usual time frame – particularly because with the advent of “Thursday Night Football” and some digital streaming of games, “there’s plenty of NFL to go around,” says Kevin Collins, senior vice president of strategic investment for sports and events at Interpublic Group’s Magna. “There’s a high price for it and there’s a lot of volume to sell Thursday night through Sunday and Monday night. There are a lot of big units to sell,” says Jeff Gagne, senior vice president of strategic investments at Havas Media, which means advertisers typically can get access to inventory even after the season has started.

NBCU’s Lovinger says the company is hearing from many of the usual kind of advertisers at this time, but notes interest in last season from what many in the TV industry hope are more sustainable buyers.  Many TV networks are working to win business from a host of start-up brands that have won consumers by using digital and direct-response advertising, and now are looking at TV to build out brand recognition. These advertisers can include marketers like Peloton, Blue Apron or Casper, among others. These direct-to-consumer advertisers “are looking to build scale very quickly,” notes Lovinger. NBCU, he says, tries to have 80% of Its football inventory sold before the season starts.

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