Super Bowl ads not yet sold out

ABC says it expects to be sold out by game time, but time still unsold despite stronger ad market.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Three days before the nation’s largest advertising event, ABC is still not sold out of time on this year’s Super Bowl.

An ABC spokeswoman said that the network “expects to be sold out” of time on the game. But last year Fox, which had rights to that game, reported it had sold out of its inventory of commercial time by Thursday before the game. It did so despite a weaker advertising market overall and the start of the Winter Olympics a week later drawing away ad dollars.

Industry executives said that the time left for sale in the game is in the fourth quarter, during which advertisers take a risk of lower viewership if the game becomes a blowout. The fourth quarter spots normally sell at a discount because of that risk. Last year, when the game was decided in the final seconds, the fourth quarter advertisers found themselves with a bargain.

The market for the 61 30-second spots being sold during this year’s game has been seen as relatively strong, with a reported average sales price of $2.1 million per spot, up just over 10 percent from last year’s average sales price of $1.9 million on Fox.

The Super Bowl and the Oscars awards program March 23, both of which will air on ABC, was seen giving a boost to the Walt Disney Co. (DIS: up $0.26 to $17.58, Research, Estimates) unit, which has been one of the weaker financial performers among the company’s divisions and the nation’s four major broadcast networks.

Disney is set to report earnings next Thursday for its fiscal first quarter, which ended Jan. 31. Analysts surveyed by earnings tracker First Call expect earnings per share to be 15 cents, unchanged from a year earlier when the Sept. 11 attack was still significantly impacting travel to the company’s theme parks. Its fiscal second quarter earnings, which would include both the Super Bowl and Oscars, is expected to be 14 cents a share, up from 13 cents a year earlier.

But overall the market for television advertising is much stronger than a year ago, which is part of the factor that helped ABC get what is likely to be a record average price for this year’s ads.

For example, last week General Electric reported that its entire first quarter inventory of ad time on broadcast unit NBC was already 96 percent sold out, and that ad rates are up 18 percent from advanced ad sales for the period sold during what is known in the industry as an “upfront” ad purchase market.

Several major advertisers from last year, including E*Trade and Volkswagen, are not advertising this year, but the game has attracted some new advertisers as well, including the first Super Bowl spots ever for Gatorade and Trident gum.