Fox Nears Sell Out for Super Bowl Ads (and It’s Only September)

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Super Bowl LVII won’t start until February 12 of next year.  Even so, Fox, the network slated to broadcast the event, is close to scoring a major game touchdown.

The network is nearly sold out of commercial inventory for the sports extravaganza, says Mark Evans, executive vide president of ad sales for Fox Sports, in an interview, with 95% of its Super Bowl ad inventory spoken for. The executive estimated Fox has five or fewer 30-second slots left to sell.

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Activity around the Super Bowl has “escalated significantly,” says Evans. Advertisers “are eager for sports, without question, but I also think the major marketers who are going to be in the game want to make sure they can secure the position they want.” So-called “A positions,” or the first ads in commercial breaks, “are very finite,” says Evans. “It’s a perishable commodity.”

Fox has sold several ads at “north of $7 million,” according to a person familiar with the matter — which would likely represent a record price for a 30-second spot in the game. Some clients who are buying multiple spots or who have a deep relationship with the network might have discussed deals that called for ads to be priced between $6 million and $7 million, this person says.

NBC’s 2022 broadcast of Super Bowl LVI generated around $434.5 million, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending.

The race to sell Super Bowl commercials, typically some of the most expensive in TV, can be twisty and onerous, with some ad berths left empty just days before kickoff. In recent years, networks broadcasting the game haven’t been able to declare sell out until the last week before the Big Game. NBCUniversal said Super Bowl LVI ads were sold out on February 3 of this year, just ten days before the telecast. In 2021, CBS waited until January 27 to declare sell out for Super Bowl LV, which was telecast on February 7 — in a year when Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo declined to run sports for their best-known beverages.

In an era when more TV fans are turning to streaming, the Super Bowl has taken on new luster on Madison Avenue. Marketers know that sports events, which air live and command some of TV’s biggest audiences, also generate massive crowds that watch the games simultaneously. That makes a Super Bowl ad more efficient in many ways than a commercial attached to a streaming property that reaches handfuls of audience at various times of the viewers’ own choosing.

Indeed, says Evans, Fox saw demand for sports peak first in the industry’s recent “upfront” market. In more typical years, sports don’t move in earnest until advertisers pick over primetime comedies, dramas and reality programs. As viewer habits shift for the broadband age, he suspects the dynamic may be changing.

“Sports led this marketplace. A lot of the NFL upfront deals were done in advance of your traditional entertainment marketplace, which is unique,” says Evans. “It speaks to the demand for marquee events.” The executive says ads for Fox’s fall NFL season are “more than 90% sold out,” with commercials in bigger games slated for Thanksgiving, Christmas and post-season, pushing past those levels. In September, he says, those events are typically 80% to 85% sold out. Fox has signed ad deals with 28 sponsors who had not previously bought commercials during its NFL broadcasts, says Evans, representing $100 million in new commitments.

Fox made a big play for its Super Bowl broadcast. In the fall of last year –18 months before game time — the network’s ad-sales team declared it was open for business for Super Bowl LVII. NBC had yet to sound the bell on its own process for the 2022 game, and Seth Winter, then the Fox sports ad-sales chief, declared that Fox wanted at least $6 million for a 30-second spot.

Winter retired at the end of the year and Evans was tasked with carrying out the strategy — with a few challenges thrown into the mix. Pepsi, a stalwart Super Bowl sponsor, revealed in May that it would no longer sponsor the Super Bowl halftime show after a decade at the helm. The NFL has been seeking more money for advertising rights to the mid-game spectacle. In June. Anheuser-Busch, which has enjoyed rights to be the Big Game’s only alcohol advertiser since 1989, ceded its exclusivity.

Demand has not waned, says Evans. A-B’s decision “opened up a narrative with other corporations, that, quite frankly, have been calling me for years: ‘Let me know when they are out.’” Already, Molson Coors, owner of Miller Lite and Coors Light, has announced its purchase of a 30-second spot. Meanwhile, says Evans, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo are still buying ads in the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl has long been a top draw, but advertisers have approached the celebration more methodically in recent years.

For one thing, the NFL has made more football available during the regular season, thanks to its deals with CBS, NBC, Fox, and now, Amazon, to show games on Thursday nights. That gives marketers more opportunity to buy ads around NFL games throughout the season at lower prices than the championship event.

And as the price of advertising has swelled past the $5 million point, the costs of doing Super Bowl business have come under more scrutiny by the large corporations that buy ads. After all, the costs of media inventory must be considered along with those of hiring an ad agency; doing deals with celebrities and musicians; creating special effects; and putting in place ancillary marketing efforts at retail outlets and on social media. TV networks often require Super Bowl advertisers to spend an equal amount of money across their media portfolios as part of the haggle over the game.

Before most executives know it, the economics of running an ad in the Super Bowl can swell from being merely eye-popping to exponentially astronomical. Little wonder, then, that TV executives can recount stories of clients calling in the weeks before the event begging to be let out of a Super Bowl commitment.

Fox has been able to sell out the Super Bowl early on at least one occasion in the recent past. In 2019, for example, the network declared sell-out for 2020’s Super Bowl LIV in November of 2019. A new NFL policy that cut the number of commercial breaks in the game was seen as a deciding factor in the process. Previously, in 2013,Fox was able to close the sales window on its 2014 broadcast of Super Bowl XLVIII.

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