Fox Faces Hurdles Selling Super Bowl Ads
By Adam Pasick
NEW YORK (Reuters) – When the Super Bowl rolls around this February, the world’s most highly-priced advertising vehicle won’t be the only the game in town.
Fox, a unit of News Corp. Ltd. (NCP.AX) (NYSE:NWS – news) that is televising the game, is not only facing the worst advertising downturn in decades, but is also competing for advertisers with the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which begins a mere five days after Super Bowl XXXVI.
Pitting the world’s biggest football game against bobsledding, figure skating and skiing, Fox says it has sold between 75 percent and 80 percent of its 30-second ad slots, but admitted it has not been the easiest of tasks.
“There’s an impact having the Olympics right on the heels of the Super Bowl,” said Fox Sports spokesman Lou D’Ermilio. “It being a United States-based Olympic Games, there’s that much more sports-based (ad) inventory.”
NBC, the unit of General Electric Co. (NYSE:GE – news) that is televising the Winter Olympics, has sold more than 90 percent of its Olympics ad slots.
D’Ermilio said Fox is about on pace with the number of ads sold by CBS, which hosted last year’s Super Bowl. Fox expects ad rates “north of $2 million — in the same general ballpark as what CBS got last year,” he said.
Citing the difficulty of selling enough ads, Fox has scaled back its Super Bowl pre-game advertising to five hours, down from 7.6 hours when it last hosted the game in 1999.
That year was the banner year for dot-com companies, when seventeen firms with the now notorious suffix took out Super Bowl ads. That number fell to only three last year, as the dot-coms crashed back to earth.
Job advertising Web site operator Monster.com, which made its reputation and built its brand through a series of well-received Super Bowl ads, has yet to commit to a Super Bowl spot this year, opting for Olympic ads and sponsorships along with ads in college football bowl games.
“From a brand exposure standpoint, we know we’re going to be very visible with or without the Super Bowl,” said Peter Blacklow, senior vice president of marketing for Monster. “It becomes a nice thing to do but we certainly don’t have the reliance we’ve had in previous years.”
Monster is still in negotiations with Fox to buy a Super Bowl spot, Blacklow said, and would like to have an ad during the game “if the price makes sense.”
“We think the Super Bowl fits very well in the mix, but unlike other years it’s just part of the puzzle,” he said.
HotJobs.com (Nasdaq:HOTJ – news), Monster.com’s one-time competitor and current merger partner — although the deal has been thrown into question by a rival bid from Internet firm Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO – news) — is sticking with the Super Bowl.
Four years ago, the company devoted a startling one-half of the company’s annual revenues to pay for a Super Bowl ad.
“The Super Bowl is a unique program, where the advertising shares the center stage — that’s not true for the Olympics,” said Chief Executive Dimitri Boylan. “The Super Bowl has paid off for us three times already, and we’re pretty confident it will do the same this year.”
HotJobs has not yet committed to buy any Olympic ads, according to a spokeswoman.
Fox Sports spokesman D’Ermilio said that although Super Bowl ad sales have been slower, the network still expects a full slate of ads.
“Folks are, given the climate, waiting longer until they commit to the game,” he said. “We’re confident it will be sold out.”
But the difficult economic climate may cause some advertisers to question the wisdom of a Super Bowl spot in a downturn.
“Money is just so short that given the pricing of a Super Bowl spot, do you want to blow a big hole in your ad budget on February 3?” said Forrester Research advertising analyst Jim Nail.
To sweeten the pot for advertisers, Fox may offer on-air mentions or sponsorships, Nail added.
“The Super Bowl has generally not had to offer incentives, because it usually sells out, but this year is a different year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Fox threw in something extra.”
The most difficult spots to sell are in the fourth quarter, according to Tim Spengler of Initiative Media, a media buying and planning firm, because a lopsided game can drive away viewers.
“The fourth quarter is almost sold differently than the first three,” he said. “If you tracked the ratings, they only go down 10 to 15 percent even in a blowout, but the attentiveness declines and the environment changes