Ad Sales Down in TV Sports Units

The ad sales people in TV sports divisions might just be wondering what Alan Greenspan can do for them.

Mirroring the downturn in the U.S. economy, which Greenspan's Federal Reserve has tried to spur by cutting interest rates, it hasn't been easy to sell commercial time in television these days.

"Overall, the ad market is soft. Demand is weak across the board and the lesser sports are suffering in the same fashion as the major properties," former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, a consultant, said Thursday.

"Right now the networks are not selling out for sports. They are faced with either reducing prices or returning ad space to affiliate stations for sale."

A recent tit-for-tat exchange between two major networks is indicative of the current climate.

Fox Sports fired the first salvo with a series of print ads this month comparing TV ratings among certain demographic groups for the World Series with those for the Olympics.

Fox owns exclusive rights to postseason baseball for the next six years under a $2.5 billion contract; NBC is paying $3.5 billion for the U.S. rights to the Olympics from 2000 to 2008.

With help from some nifty graphics work, Fox's ads show players from the Yankees and Mets, last year's World Series teams, participating in Olympic pursuits while wearing baseball uniforms: Roger Clemens in a bobsled, Mike Piazza (in full catching regalia) clearing a hurdle, Al Leiter on gymnastic rings.

The accompanying copy, aimed at potential sponsors, cites varying statistics to support claims that more men and more upscale viewers watched the World Series than the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The World Series averaged a 12.4 national rating, the lowest ever. The Sydney Games averaged a 13.8 between 7 p.m. and midnight, the worst ratings for an Olympics since the 1960s. (Each ratings point represents a little more than 1 million TV homes.)

One sample from a Fox ad: "You might be surprised to know that Fox's 2000 Yankees-Mets World Series actually beat NBC's prime-time Sydney coverage last fall in every key Male demo. ... That's reminiscent of 1992 when the USA played Angola in Men's Basketball - not pretty."

NBC didn't exactly turn the other cheek - a full-page in national editions of The New York Times on Wednesday matched Fox for wit ("It is a response," NBC Sports VP Kevin Sullivan said).

Two lines atop the page read, "Below is an extensive list of television events that attract more viewers than the Olympics."

What followed? A blank page, of course, with the tagline: "Nothing beats the Olympics."

Tiny print at the bottom of the page explained the claim, which boils down to this sort of math: Over the course of its 441 hours on NBC and two cable channels, the Olympics were seen by 185 million people; over the course of about four hours on CBS, the 2001 Super Bowl was seen by 131.2 million people.

Fair comparison? You be the judge.

Public pettiness aside, the networks' pitches come when advertising types are congregating in New York for the releases of schedules for the new TV season, and when upfront sales of commercial time takes place.

NBC's ad sales for the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics are just short of 70 percent of inventory, slightly behind where they were at the equivalent date ahead of the Sydney Games.

"Compared to Atlanta (in 1996) and Sydney, this is in the ballpark, give or take a percent," Sullivan said.

Whatever the vagaries of the economy, though, big-ticket events probably will be worth the millions invested by networks, particularly when side benefits like promotions for other programs are factored in.

"The advertising market place has experienced softness back to the fourth quarter of 2000," said Ed Erhardt, president of sales for ESPN and ABC Sports.

"The big-event kind of product, depending on what it is, holds up pretty well, though, because there is the desire to have reach and reach with impact," he added, "and sports remains one of the few places where you can find large audiences."

His networks have countered the slower economy, which has led companies to trim advertising budgets, by packaging sponsorship deals on TV along with Internet and magazine ads.

But back to the petty propaganda from Fox and NBC for a moment.

It's all a bit silly, given that plenty the advertising dollars that are out there will gravitate toward major events like the World Series and Olympics. And besides, those tend to attract vastly different audiences.

"These are the big boys kind of swatting each other with pillows," Pilson said. "I don't think either network has anything to be concerned about in terms of sales of postseason baseball versus sales of Olympics."

"You don't buy the Olympics for the male demographics and you don't buy baseball for female demos."

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