In the early moments of the annual game to lure advertisers to the Super Bowl, ViacomCBS is first and long.
Signing 60 to 70 automakers, snack manufacturers and tech marketers to sponsor the biggest TV event of the year is never an easy task. But doing so will be tougher for the newly-merged media conglomerate, owing to a coronavirus pandemic that has thrown the sports business into disarray and forced advertisers to tighten their purse strings. ViacomCBS, which has the rights to broadcast the extravaganza in 2021, will have to reassure would-be Big Game sponsors about the NFL’s ability to mount a new season even as it tries to get the best prices possible.
“We are not going to be silly about it,” says Jo Ann Ross, president and chief U.S. advertising revenue officer of ViacomCBS, in an interview. She says the company recognizes that clients will want contingency plans in case the Super Bowl or the NFL season is delayed or moved. But, she adds, if live sports return, “there is going to be a demand whether there are people in the stands or not” and advertisers “are going to want to talk to their customers with a really strong voice.” The National Football League has signaled it intends to mount a full season, despite the pandemic.
Already, the company faces some early hesitancy. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which has taken a prominent position in the Super Bowl for decades, is unable to say at present whether it intends to take part in 2021, according to a spokesperson, who cited “a fluid environment.” The brewer has a deal in place through 2022 that makes its Bud Light the NFL’s official beer sponsor. And PepsiCo, which regularly advertises its flagship beverages and Frito-Lay snacks during the Super Bowl while sponsoring the game’s halftime show, was unable to respond to a query asking about its involvement with the event next year.
Anheuser spent approximately $41 million in Fox’s broadcast of Super Bowl LIV in February, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending – the most of any advertiser in the game. PepsiCo spent an estimated $31 million. Super Bowl LV is slated to take place Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
ViacomCBS has been counting on the game to help prove the viability of its recent merger to any number of parties. Investors have put the company’s stock, which has tumbled since its late-2019 launch, under scrutiny. And the NFL, which has been gearing up to renegotiate its rights deals with Walt Disney, ViacomCBS, Fox and NBCUniversal in coming months, will no doubt take ViacomCBS’ Super Bowl performance into consideration as part of that process.
The company has already made outreach to a number of advertisers, with letters sent to sponsors of the last game, and is holding early conversations about the event – the normal course of action for this time of year, according to people familiar with the process. ViacomCBS is touting the involvement of a wider range of TV networks in football this year, including Nickelodeon, which will produce a broadcast of an extra Wild Card game aimed at kids. The company expects to use its broader portfolio of networks to generate content related to the gridiron classic “the week of and the hours before Super Bowl LV,” says Ross. Even ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish is deeply involved in the company’s Super Bowl efforts. He is overseeing a large group of around 80 executives dedicated to organizing the company’s work around Super Bowl LIV.
With a broadcast of the game comes a massive swell of cash. Fox Corp.’s recent broadcast of Super Bowl LIV “generated around $600 million of gross revenue across the company” in the first quarter of 2020, according to Lachan Murdoch, CEO of the company, in remarks recently delivered to investors. Kantar recently estimated that advertising in Super Bowl LIV totaled $435 million – a new record for the event.
Talks with ViacomCBS have so far been casual, says one buying executive, and the company has yet to articulate the price range it might seek for Super Bowl inventory. Fox pressed for between $5 million and $5.6 million for a 30-second ad in the most recent game, and this buyer says cost-conscious advertisers are likely to balk at the prospect of paying an increase. The company believes the value of the game will become more obvious as time passes – particularly if the pandemic subsides and advertisers feel the need to send messages of thanks or tribute, or even launch a new product or service.
Familiar faces are making outreach to Madison Avenue. John Bogusz, CBS’s executive vice president of sports sales and Anthony Taranto, who heads up sales of NFL games, have worked their way through many Super Bowl processes. They have teamed up with Sean McManus and Dave Berson, the chairman and president, respectively, of CBS Sports, who can tell buyers and clients what to expect in terms of logistics and game play.
Selling the Super Bowl has become an arduous process – even without a pandemic. If Fox did get clients to pay $5.6 million for an ad in February’s game, it would represent a massive hike of 107% over the $2.7 million Kantar estimates it cost to run a 30-second ad in 2008’s broadcast. A Super Bowl ad campaign has other costs involved as well, including special effects, talent contacts and rights to use pop music; social- and digital-media campaigns; public-relations blitzes; and marketing efforts at supermarkets, convenience stories and other retail outlets. In recent years, the three networks that rotate Super Bowl telecasts – NBC, CBS and Fox – have gone down to the wire to sell out commercial inventory.
The NFL in the last year has moved to give advertisers a reason to rush the game anew. The league and Fox cut one commercial break from each quarter this year, leaving the Super Bowl with fewer of the game’s most desirable perches – first and last spots in a commercial break. That spurred a quicker pace of sales, and Fox sold out its broadcast in November of 2019 – the first time in five years a network has managed to sell all its Super Bowl ads early. The 2021 game will have a similar structure, according to the buyer and other people familiar with the situation.
ViacomCBS takes on the tougher sales assignment for a game that was originally supposed to air somewhere else. NBC was next in the rotation to air the game, but last year agreed to swap with CBS so both networks could better align a Super Bowl broadcast with other events. NBCUniversal had hoped to pair a 2022 Super Bowl with its broadcast that year of the Winter Olympics, while CBS wanted to tie the 2021 Super Bowl to its broadcast that year of the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball championship.
“We are moving forward, and we hope that it all works out,” says Ross. “This is a different kind of atmosphere.”