TV sports, even the NFL, aren't the sure ad sell they once were

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 Dallas and Seattle, 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: winless Detroit vs. undefeated Tennessee.

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. (partialdiff)