NFL Games Boosting Primetime Ratings, Ad Sales

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FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 17:  Ray Rice #27 of the Baltimore Ravens gains yards against the New England Patriots in the first half at Gillette Stadium on October 17, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Under the specter of a lockout next year, the current season has all the makings of a blockbuster.

Sports has saved TV's bacon again, serving as the medium's enduring reach vehicle and supercharging the ad-sales marketplace.

Under the specter of a lockout next year, the current NFL season has all the makings of a blockbuster. Primetime ratings are booming; NBC's Sunday Night Football is averaging 21.8 million viewers through the first five weeks, marking the biggest turnout for nighttime football since 1996. Meanwhile, ESPN's Monday Night Football is averaging 15.2 million viewers, even with 2009.

It can be argued that football is the only thing keeping NBC afloat. The Oct. 10 SNF telecast was the week's most-watched program in primetime, drawing 16.9 million Live+SD viewers and notching a 6.7 rating in the 18-49 demographic (8.8 million viewers). Only one other NBC show finished in the top 20: The Office served up 7 million viewers and a 3.5 demo rating Oct. 7.

ESPN is punishing the broadcast networks with its MNF juggernaut, drawing 17.3 million viewers and a 5.6 demo rating with its coverage of the Oct. 11 Minnesota Vikings-New York Jets game. On CBS, Hawaii Five-0 earned a 3.5 rating at 10 p.m., and NBC's The Event pulled a 2.4 in the 9 p.m. slot. (ESPN sibling ABC is holding tough Monday nights as the most recent installment of Dancing With the Stars drew a 4.3 rating.)

The 2010-11 upfront got cooking as Fox, NBC, CBS and ESPN began writing orders for their NFL packages. Such was the rush for automakers and financial-services companies to jump back into the sports TV pot that Fox wound up moving 80% of its Super Bowl inventory concurrently with its springtime dealmaking. It was an unprecedented development and further proof that the network television business lives and dies on the strength of top-tier sports.

With little NFL inventory left to go around -- ESPN and NBC were all but sold out of their respective packages by late June, and onlya handful of Fox's $3 million 30-second Super Bowl spots remain available -- advertisers have turned to the NBA offerings at TNT and ESPN.

Turner Sports is doing brisk business, crafting unique opportunities in and around its NBA on TNT telecasts with the likes of Hyundai, T-Mobile,, Sprite, Kia Motors and the Marines. The unit also landed new sponsors in Kelloggs, BP Amoco and Under Armour; moreover, Turner Sports has booked several first-timers on the league-owned NBA TV, lining up deals with Allstate, Arby's, GameStop and Hanes.

"We've been doing this for 20 years now, and we are selling way ahead of schedule," said Jon Diament, executive vp ad sales and marketing at Turner Sports. "We're pacing about 50% ahead of where we were this time last year in terms of how much money we've already booked."

Diament said an active offseason trading period has helped prime the pump for the 2010-11 NBA season, and TNT should feel the effects of two of the bigger personnel moves when the Miami Heat square off against the Boston Celtics on opening night Oct. 26.

"When people get their first real look at LeBron [James] in a Heat uniform and [Shaquille O'Neal] over there in a Celtics jersey, that's going to be amazing," he said. "There's so much excitement to tap into this season, and advertisers want to be part of that, which is why so many of them are buying seasonlong packages."

The NBA is gearing up to supplant Major League Baseball as the nation's No. 2 sports organization, a surge reflected by TV ratings if not gate receipts. The 2010 NBA Finals pitting the Celtics against the Los Angeles Lakers averaged 18.1 million viewers on ABC, trailing the 2009 World Series battle between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies (19.3 million on Fox). That said, the NBA beat baseball in the 18-49 demo as the seven-game title series earned a 7.3 rating compared with a 6.2 for the six-game World Series.

ABC/ESPN pays an estimated $485 million a year for rights to televise NBA games, slightly more than TNT's investment ($445 million). Both contracts run through the 2015-16 season.

Along with the expanded reach afforded by big-time sports -- last year, TNT's NBA coverage averaged 1.9 million viewers ages 18-49, doubling the time-period average -- clients enjoy the advantage of the live-viewing environment, which tends to aid commercial retention. Last season, broadcast sporting events on average held 95% of their viewership during breaks, and sports commentary retained 99%.

As the NBA suits up for its 65th season, the NFL faces uncertainty about its future after this season. At risk for the league are about $3.8 billion in rights deals; the networks stand to lose $2.5 billion in regular-season ad revenue.

Although there is no insurance clause to protect NFL partners in the event of a work stoppage, the biggest loser in a lockout scenario could be the league itself.

"Mass exposure creates an annuity in perpetuity for these franchises," said David Bank, managing director of global media and Internet research at RBC Capital Markets. "If you deprive fans of this content, you risk alienating them for good."