NFL Ad Sales Stay Strong While Prime Time Viewers Decline

NFL advertising sales is selling strongly and at higher price increase levels than against the prime-time adult programming upfront market just concluded, say media buyers. Coming on the heels of the somewhat lackluster upfront prime-time market, media buyers say that NFL programming on CBS, ESPN, Fox and ABC is being priced, on average, anywhere from 6% to 8% versus a year ago. These increases are higher than the 4% to 5% price increases the broadcast prime-time general-interest programming received a few weeks ago.

NFL inventory has been moving more rapidly. "We are definitely pacing ahead of last year," said one veteran network advertising sales executive.

"For ESPN, some weeks are already sold out," said Geoff Robison, senior vp of national broadcast for Palisades Media Group. Media buyers say other networks are in the same position.

ABC's "Monday Night Football" is about 50% or more sold so far. Much of that comes from its incumbent advertisers such as Anheuser-Busch, Toyota Motor Sales, and other auto companies. The first "MNF" game and the first "Sunday Night Football" game on ESPN are already sold out.

Executives at ABC and Fox had no comment. A CBS spokesman could not be reached by press time.

Unlike the adult prime-time market, sports has kept its attraction--and its media budgets high--among pharmaceutical brands such as the erectile-dysfunction drugs, and automobile brands, especially the imports.

The NFL has been a consistent ratings performer, and has given advertisers less on-air commercial glut. For example, the NFL has a limit of 90-second commercial pods; some prime-time shows can be as high as 150-seconds long.

The NFL's prime male viewer audience is traditionally hard to get for advertisers. This places them in higher demand than, say, the adult 18-49 viewers. For the last few years, adult viewers ages 18-49 have been eroding anywhere from 3% to 8% per year--although this season, viewers 18-49 eked out a slight, and rare, 1% gain.

"Male viewers [overall] are eroding faster than adults 18-49 viewers," said Robison.

Network sales executives say male viewer erosion is slower with sports. All this makes sports, like the NFL, attractive. That means sizable price increases.

Healthy price hikes are also finding their way to Major League Baseball games on Fox for its October playoffs and World Series. The network's selling pace is 10% higher than a year ago, according to media executives.