Bowl, Olympics compete for ad gold

Michael McCarthy USA TODAY

There’s a grudge match between giants this winter: the Olympics vs. the Super Bowl.

The two mega-sports events are going mano a mano for the real gold: big ad bucks that only major advertisers are willing to spend for the visibility and audience such premier events offer.

The worst fall-off in overall ad spending since World War II ramped up the stakes, as tight budgets forced even many big marketers to choose between the two. And making the competition more intense, the September terrorist attacks pushed back Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans to Feb. 3, just five days before opening ceremonies for the XIX Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

“This is like an eclipse,” says Rob Apatoff, chief marketing officer for Allstate Insurance. “They’re both such important events, they are competing for ad dollars.” The Good Hands people will advertise in the Olympics, but not the Super Bowl.

U.S. media spending dropped 6.8% in 2001, according to forecaster Jack Myers. “You won’t see many advertisers in both. They are both huge, expensive commitments,” says Stacey Lynn Koerner, director of broadcast research at Initiative Media North America.

Both offer huge TV audiences. The Super Bowl is annually the most watched, most expensive TV program, attracting 130 million to 140 million total viewers in the USA. The audience for the average Olympics program is much smaller, but adds up. The last U.S. Olympics, the 1996 Games in Atlanta, attracted 210 million viewers over two weeks.

A year ago, the Super Bowl looked to be the clear favorite for the ad gold.

In a survey of their most important TV events this year, consumers ranked the Super Bowl first, regular programming second and the Winter Olympics third, according to Initiative Media North America.

Four of the 10 highest-rated TV shows of all time are Super Bowls, according to Nielsen research. One Winter Olympics event does show up in that list, but it was a special case: the dramatic 1994 figure skating showdown between U.S. women Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding in Lillehammer, Norway.

The Salt Lake Games have been touched by scandal. It was revealed that Utah boosters had dished out more than $1 million in cash, gifts and services to Olympic committee delegates to gain votes for selection.

Olympic organizers and broadcasters privately feared the Games no longer had the juice to take on the Super Bowl. Last January’s game thumped the average 2000 Olympics broadcast from Sydney by 354% in Nielsen household ratings (40.4 vs. 8.9) and 530% in average viewers (84.4 million vs. 13.4 million).

While the Olympics might have been hurt because the time difference caused much programming to be taped, Super Bowl viewership is undercounted because many watch in such places as bars and dorms, notes Bill Cella, chairman of Magna Global USA.

But that was last year, and as rival TV networks — NBC for the Olympics and Fox with the Super Bowl — competed for sales, the Winter Olympics gained an edge.

Last week, Fox had sold 90% of its in-game spots. By Wednesday, that was at 95%, spokesman Lou D’Ermilio said. The price of a 30-second ad is down 9% to around $2 million from a high of $2.2 million in 2000.

Meanwhile, NBC had sold 97% of Winter Games ad time last week and was at 98% on Wednesday, with 10 days left before the opening ceremonies, NBC president Randy Falco said.

It expects to collect $720 million in ad sales for 375.5 hours of programming on the NBC, MSNBC and CNBC networks, and turn an estimated profit of $65 million to $75 million. It shelled out $545 million for the rights to the Salt Lake Games, part of a $3.5 billion package of five Olympic Games from 2000 through 2008.

Fox might not be sold out, but forget any fire sale, according to the network. That would cheapen Super Bowl spots for years to come. “You don’t want to be giving away Super Bowl spots for free — not if you want to be employed,” says Jon Nesvig, Fox president of sales.

Instead, Fox is sweetening the pot by offering “enhancements,” such as deals on other programs, that don’t compromise Super Bowl prices. “If we wanted to drop our prices, we’d have the game sold out in a minute,” says D’Ermilio.

It’s not unusual for a network to enter the last week with a handful of unsold spots, he adds. Fox didn’t sell its last ad for Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999 until the Thursday before kickoff, he points out. And Fox still expects to reap a healthy $200 million from nine hours of Super Sunday programming.

But the shadow cast by the Olympic rings is hurting business, D’Ermilio admits. “Would we be better off if there was not a U.S. Olympics starting within days of the Super Bowl? Common sense says yes. But we’re moving forward and continuing to write business.”

Path to change

So what happened?

The Super Bowl has become an unofficial American holiday. But a surge in patriotism for the war on terrorism is proving to be a windfall for the Olympics. In audience research, four of five consumers say they will tune in. “There’s a new sense of national pride. The Olympics are resonating more this time around,” says Steve Tihanyi, director of marketing alliances for General Motors, which is one of a few advertisers on both events.

Also, conspicuous consumption is out because of the recession. Some advertisers worry that paying the well-publicized tab for 30 seconds of Super Bowl glory would appear unseemly when companies are struggling and thousands of workers have lost jobs. Thirty seconds of prime ad time during the Olympics costs roughly $600,000 vs. the $2 million for a Super Bowl spot.

Olympic buyers can tout their cost-consciousness and patriotism, even though they might spend more in total over the two weeks.

“The reason (the) Super Bowl is not as hot a property as years past is the high visibility associated with the cost of participating. Advertisers are being cautious about the signals they send,” notes Jerry Dow, director of worldwide marketing for United Airlines, which is skipping the Super Bowl for an Olympic sponsorship.

As the tricky maneuvering goes down to the wire, here’s what some big marketers have decided about the two big events:

* Buy both. A few advertisers have the funds and the savvy to advertise in both properties. Anheuser-Busch is one.

A-B is the biggest Super Bowl advertiser this year, with 5 minutes of commercial time.

It’s also a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team and is the exclusive malt beverage sponsor of the Salt Lake Games. The brewer will air more than 100 Olympic commercials.

“Our strategy is clear-cut. We like the big, high-profile sporting events. And we like to own them,” says Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing. For A-B, the two events are not competing — they’re an opportunity. “We see it as a monthlong period where we have a dominant presence.”

GM is also in both. It has a minute of Super Bowl time in addition to a major marketing effort for Cadillac built around the game. It’s also an Olympic sponsor and the biggest advertiser during the Games, with roughly 200 commercials, half for Chevrolet.

The automaker wants to reach consumers through “fewer, bigger properties,” Tihanyi explains. “We want to go into things that really have an impact.”

Visa is another double, with a Super Bowl minute and 100 Olympic spots. Liz Silver, senior vice president of brand management, agrees with Ponturo that the close timing is great for marketers with the money for both. “The fact they are so close together gives us an opportunity to make some impact.”

* Go for the rings. EDS made a big Super Bowl splash the past two years with its special-effects-heavy “Cat Herders” and “Running of the Squirrels” commercials from ad agency Fallon.

But the technology company made a “strategic decision” to bypass the game this year, says Don Uzzi, senior vice president of global advertising. “The Olympics work better for us this year. And I emphasize this year. If there were no Olympics, we would be on the Super Bowl.”

EDS will air 58 Olympic commercials.

Super Bowl rookie Volkswagen roared into the game last year with three ads and status as the “exclusive” automotive advertiser. But VW feels the “Olympics is an even greater opportunity,” says spokesman Tony Fouladpour.

“People feel a greater sense of pride at being an American. They will watch it with even more interest.”

Did tight budgets play a part? “It doesn’t make as much business sense to do both this year.”

* Connect the dots. Office Depot will try to make the two events work together. It’s buying a Super Bowl spot in the cheaper pregame show and using it to unveil the first of its Olympic ads.

Playing a part in any advertiser’s choice between the two events is the difference in audience. Women make up 57% of Winter Olympic viewers, while the Super Bowl is 57% male.

Both events, however, are extremely “broad reach” as they say on Madison Avenue. “Most sports are 70% male. So the Super Bowl actually attracts more women than other sports,” notes Tom McGovern, director of research for ad buyer OMD USA. “The typical prime-time show is 60% female. So the Olympics are more male than typical prime-time stuff.”

Economic ripples

The economy hurt the Super Bowl beyond tighter ad budgets, says Cella. The Super Bowl is an ideal launch pad to hawk a new company, a new product or a name change. But that activity is way down as the economy struggles.

“The Super Bowl is a one-day extravaganza; the Olympics is a 17-day extravaganza,” Cella says. “If you want a one-day blowout to introduce a new brand, you go to the Super Bowl. If you want a patriotic, 17-day event, you go to the Olympics.”

The Olympics vs. Super Bowl shootout also is indicative of a wider free-for-all, says Ponturo. The U.S. media market is glutted with more sports and entertainment properties than there is ad money to go around.

Says Ponturo: “They’re competing against each other. But they’re also competing against all the other events: entertainment, Golden Globes, February sweeps. Everyone is trying to get their piece of the pie.”