Networks score with swift NFL upfront sales

Early completion fueled by strong demand from automakers

Another sign that advertising is in recovery mode: The upfront marketplace for NFL spots -- as well as those for college football, which normally doesn't begin until July -- could wrap up by week's end. Sellers agreed they were close to completing their pro-football upfronts but emphasized that they would have some so-called "scatter" units for in-season sale.

In fact, buyers said the NFL market actually kicked off in May before the start of the primetime upfront. This, in large part, was because of strong demand from automakers General Motors, Ford and Toyota as well as financial services and retail marketers, many of which have decided to spend more after pulling back last year because of the recession.

"The autos are back with a vengeance," said John Bogusz, executive vp sports sales and marketing at CBS.

Buyers said the NFL also commanded early attention because viewing of games last season was up by double digits; ESPN led the way with a 19% gain in regular-season viewing.

College football market prices for ads -- like those in the NFL -- are up nearly 9% from 2010 prices. The increase matches gains achieved by a number of broadcast and cable networks during the primetime upfront.

NBC said it wrapped its upfront NFL market effective Friday, selling more than 80% of the available time for next season. Seth Winter, senior vp sales and marketing at NBC Sports and Olympics, called the fast pace of NFL sales "extraordinary. We're exceedingly pleased with the health of the NFL marketplace."

Not everyone, however, is happy. One buyer who confirmed pricing called the rate rise "unfortunate."

Cable sports network ESPN also is far along, but executives there hesitated to say they were "done" given its multimedia -- including TV, print, online and mobile -- year-round approach to selling.

"We're well-sold, and we feel good about where the marketplace is," said Ed Erhardt, president of customer marketing and sales at ESPN. He added that the upcoming NFL preview issue of ESPN the Magazine is "shaping up to be one of the biggest issues ever."

"The NFL is very active," CBS' Bogusz added. He estimated that CBS will be between 75%-80% sold by week's end.

To describe the NFL market as active is an understatement, said the head buyer at a major New York-based agency. "It's hotter than hell," the exec said. "Autos have really put the pedal to the metal."

A GM rep confirmed that the company has increased its spending with the NFL. "This a good place for us to be, given that a large number of viewers to the NFL are also new car buyers," the rep said.

Car sales for GM are up sharply this year -- 31% through May vs. the same period last year. One sign that the company is confident that sales will remain strong is that nine of 11 U.S. plants will remain open during the traditional two-week shutdown next month to fill anticipated production orders.

Donna Speciale, president of investment at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest, also said strong demand for ad time from the auto sector ignited this year's marketplace "starting with the NFL." With Fox having one of the major Sunday NFL packages as well as the Super Bowl, "the momentum was there even a couple of weeks before" the primetime market got under way, she said.

As previously reported, Fox already has sold 80% of the available spots for February's Super Bowl. Many were sold before the start of the primetime upfront for prices said to be $3 million per 30-second unit for the first half of the game, to be held Feb. 6 in Dallas, and $2.7 million-$2.9 million for the second half.

Rino Scanzoni, chief investment officer at WPP's GroupM, said the investment in the sports market marks a major turnaround. That market "was impacted more than other dayparts in 2009," Scanzoni said. "The areas that were drawn down the most come back faster." That, coupled with the "spectacular season" the NFL had in terms of audience growth last year, sparked a lot of interest from advertisers, he added.

Bogusz said he expects to have about 20% of the available ads in NFL games reserved for in-game sale. Normally it's a little more than that, he said.

At NBC, which airs its weekly "Sunday Night Football," Winter said the network wrote "more than a dozen" multiyear deals for the NFL.

In addition to auto, financial services and retail, Winter said, other categories gaining momentum include telecommunications, quick-service restaurants and beer.