No Gain: Super Bowl ad pricing is flat

by Richard Linnett and Wayne Friedman

The Super Bowl, the biggest advertising event of the year, is commanding less than a super price, showing signs of flattening in the price tag for the average commercial in the game. With inventory still unsold, advertisers are in a position to negotiate with broadcaster CBS.

Since the game began in 1967, ad prices have increased every year except two–1971 and 1992–both as the economy was working its way out of recession. The fear this year, of course, is that the economy may be working its way into recession.

“The pricing is flat this year,” said a knowledgeable agency executive, who requested anonymity and who works with clients advertising in the event.

“There are some people in there paying over $2 million [for a 30-second spot],” the exec said. “But there are a fair amount that are under $2 million. The last few spots left will have to be under $2 million because they are all in the fourth quarter.”

According to the executive’s tally, the average ad price this year will be “a hair under $2 million.”

Joe Abruzzese, president of advertising sales for CBS Television Network, disputed that figure, saying, “We are higher than that. It’s more like $2.2 million to $2.4 million” on average. And he contends CBS will bring in $150 million in pre-game and Super Bowl ads on Jan. 28, 12% above ABC’s ad haul on the game last year.

Mr. Abruzzese said CBS is pulling in more revenue in part by packaging the pre-game with more commercials and hourly sponsorships.

As of Jan. 12, CBS had four unsold 30-second commercials in the game, all in the fourth quarter.

“The Super Bowl is the one sport where positioning is a big difference versus other sports. You pay more for a first-quarter spot than one in the fourth quarter,” Mr. Abruzzese said.

There’s no denying CBS’s challenge this year in selling the game, given the unsettled state of the economy and the ad market.

Since the game’s 1967 debut, Super Bowl broadcasts have aired during three recessions–1970, 1982, 1991. In other years–1971, 1974-75, 1978-80, 1983, 1992–it has aired during or following quarters in which the economy was struggling. Given the sluggishness of the fourth quarter 2000 in ad sales, when many Super Bowl deals were being negotiated, it’s little surprise that prices have hit a ceiling.

According to Ad Age research, Super Bowl prices for a 30-second spot fell just once (in 1971) and were flat only once before (in 1992).

In a sluggish TV ad market, CBS managed to draw a number of traditional marketers as new Super Bowl advertisers, including Volkswagen of America and three names that didn’t exist a year ago–consultancy Accenture and telecoms Cingular and Verizon.

Last year, Ad Age estimated the average Super Bowl ad price at $2.2 million. But calculations by the plugged-in agency exec suggest the real average was $1.94 million, though he said dot-coms last year averaged $2.2 million for their Super Bowl ads.

Last year’s prices were inflated by the dot-com frenzy, in which some 17 dot-coms bought Super Bowl spots. At least one,, paid a shocking $3 million-plus for its ad, according to executives–the most ever by a Super Bowl advertiser.

Following the dot-com collapse, this year’s bowl will get off almost dot-com-free, with only Net vets E-Trade, HotJobs and making a return appearance.

Given the challenging market, media executives credit the sales effort by Viacom-owned CBS as a successful one. “They are seemingly able to hold the line in a very soft market,” said one veteran advertising executive.

CBS executives in recent weeks said they were selling some $2.5 million spots. But advertisers have had more leverage in this soft ad market. Executives say, for example, that as a starting point, Anheuser-Busch–the advertiser that traditionally buys the most units–averaged between $1.9 million and $2 million for the eight spots it will run in-game this year.

Walt Disney Co.’s ABC had the benefit of a rising market last year, when dot-coms and other advertisers bid up prices to incredible heights