Ad sales down for TV sports

Fourth-quarter numbers off as much as 15%

Once thought to be the sole recession-proof property on television, big-ticket sports are showing signs of vulnerability in the fourth quarter, with ad sales down as much as 15%, according to a number of media buyers and network executives.

Brisk sales in the upfront and long-term sponsorship packages have gone a long way to cushion the blow, but the scatter market is all but paralytic as many key categories have practically shut down.

Predictably, financial services and domestic auto have fallen out of play, though a drop-off in the latter category has been offset by foreign auto. Hyundai has been particularly active, buying time in nearly all available sports, including TNT's Thursday night NBA showcase and across ESPN's college- and pro-football properties.

If the banking and credit card money is dwindling, insurance is pulling its weight, as Geico has been ubiquitous in the quarter thanks to upfront deals and a healthy investment in scatter time. Nationwide and Progressive are also spending, according to network sales execs.

For all that, buyers are intimating that it is clearly not a seller's market and that even iron-clad franchises like the NFL are coming at a discount.

"At the end of the day, my clients pay me to act in their best possible interest, and so whatever weaknesses are out there we'll take advantage of them," said Larry Novenstern, executive vp and director of national electronic media at Optimedia. In the aggregate, Novenstern eyeballs sports' decline at about 15%, though primetime events are holding steady, landing scatter dollars slightly above upfront pricing.

National Sunday afternoon NFL games are down slightly from the average price of $400,000 per 30-second spot, but long term, things look a bit more troubling. As of late last week, Fox has one or two units left in its Thanksgiving Day game between the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks, but CBS was said to be having a hard time unloading time in its Turkey Day matchup, which might be a function of the profound mismatch it has on its hands: the winless Detroit Lions vs. the undefeated Tennessee Titans.

The economy is getting its licks in with the NFL's most high-profile game as well. NBC said that it had about eight Super Bowl spots left, having most recently brought back for a second year. Much of the availability can be chalked up to pullback from such previous Super Bowl advertisers as General Motors, Garmin and The nation's fourth-largest advertiser, GM spent an estimated $5.4 million on one 60-second spot in last year's game.

Returning sponsors include Anheuser-Busch, Hyundai, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. While NBC awaits word from FedEx, the network has signed on a new Super Bowl sponsor in dog-food brand Pedigree.

Undoubtedly, the sports franchise most at risk is NASCAR. That was made jarringly evident on Nov. 9, when ABC pushed its coverage of the penultimate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup to ESPN2 with 34 laps remaining. In trying to maintain the integrity of its Sunday night lineup, ABC might have raised the hackles of the sport's governing body.

"It's a kick in the pants to the sponsors," Novenstern said. "When it comes time to do renewals, if you're ABC you'd better hope that (NASCAR CEO) Brian France has a short memory."

If football and NASCAR are facing something of an uphill climb, the NBA has been fairly steady so far in the 2008-09 season. TNT and ESPN each enjoys the security of 2- to 3-year deals with such clients as T-Mobile and Nationwide, and neither is hugely dependent on auto.

"Having long-term media partners is certainly a benefit," Turner Sports president David Levy said. "Our existing deals with sponsors allow us to weather the storm." As steward of the NBA's digital properties, TNT also has more latitude to develop multiplatform executions for clients, upping the value proposition.

"There's no question that you have to give people as many ways to see your brand as possible, especially in a difficult market," said consultant Lee Berke of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media. "With that multiplatform approach, you have a far more attractive proposition to bring to the table."

Also providing a boost are fast food, men's grooming and, on the eve of what's expected to be a major beer war, beverages. "We are encouraged to see these categories continue to invest in ESPN," said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN customer marketing and sales. "We are seeing a flight to quality in the quarter, and we're doing more with fewer brands."