ABC Eyes First-Half Super Bowl Sellout

NEW YORK — With the exception of one 15-second spot, ABC has sold out the first half of Super Bowl XL, to be held at Detroit’s Ford Stadium on Feb. 5, according to Ed Erhardt, president, sales for ESPN/ABC Sports.

While Erhardt would not discuss specific advertisers, he did say two categories in particular were exceptionally strong and drawing more advertisers to the game than usual.

The first, which should come as no surprise with the game being held in Motown, is automotive. General Motors and Ford are believed to be in the game, while a Chrysler rep said the company had not finalized its Super Bowl plans. While some offshore brands are also in play, Volvo, a 2005 advertiser, is sitting out, according to sources. The company did not return a call by press time.

The financial services/insurance category is also strong, said Erhardt. Only Ameriquest, the mortgage services company, is a known in-game advertiser, but sources said that MasterCard is considering purchasing some time as well. As previously reported [Adweek, Dec 19], Visa, which advertised last year, is passing up the game this year to buy into the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, which begin Feb. 10, five days after the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, Burger King said it would buy a spot in the Super Bowl for the first time in 11 years. The company said it purchased one 60-second spot that will be produced by its lead creative agency Miami-based Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The spot is set to air in the second pod of ads after the kick-off, BK said.

Additional advertisers not previously disclosed include Gillette and ESPN Mobile, which sources said is buying a 60-second spot and spending an additional $2.5 million to $3 million to produce a lavish ad for the game. Erhardt said the movie category also remains “very strong.”

Although he wouldn’t discuss pricing, Erhardt was “confident” that the average price of a 30-second unit would exceed last year’s $2.4 million. Now comes the hard part for ABC: selling out the second half of the game, which usually goes to the final week and sometimes the final day before the game. Erhardt wouldn’t discuss how many spots were left to sell of the 60 in-game units, but did confirm that there is also time available in both the third and fourth quarters. “Ideally, they should be sold out at this point,” said sports consultant Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. “But I think they’ll get there.”

Thanks to what Erhardt called a “very busy week” leading up to Christmas, they “are where we want to be right now” in terms of a sellout, he said. He said the network has sold about as many ads four weeks before the game as it did for Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003, the last time ABC aired it. Others said that would put ABC at close to 90 percent sold, with between five to 10 spots still available.

Indeed, the word in sports advertising circles is that ABC was behind the normal pace leading into late December. “They were pacing behind, but they wrote some business in the last couple of weeks that got them basically to where everyone usually is with about a month to go,” said the head of one network sports sales department.

Among the complicating factors is the Olympics, which throws a huge amount of additional sports TV ad inventory into the first quarter. That season is already crowded with the Super Bowl in January and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in March, forcing tougher decisions on advertisers about where to place their money. McDonald’s also opted not to participate in the Super Bowl this year, after having done so last year, in part to focus on the Olympics. “It’s definitely an issue,” said the head of a top-10 media agency. “You take a look at some of the big Olympic sponsors, and they have to decide how much weight and how much they can afford to spend in a very restricted time frame. That’s the dilemma, and you have this problem every four years with the winter games.”

But Erhardt doesn’t see a problem and argues that there’s enough money in the relatively healthy sports marketplace to adequately feed all three of those major first-quarter sports franchises. “They’re both great franchises,” Erhardt said of the Olympics and the big game. “But people tune into the Super Bowl to watch the ads, and that’s a real point of difference. The fact that we are pacing where we were three years ago at this time leads me to believe that both properties will get supported.”

Further complicating matters is the heightened sensitivity (stemming from Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the halftime show two years ago) over what constitutes appropriate ad content in a telecast seen by more than 100 million viewers nationwide. Case in point:, the domain-name company that has been arguing with ABC over standards and practices about the content of an ad it wants to run during the game. Last year, GoDaddy, then a first-time advertiser, stirred up controversy with an ad featuring a buxom woman who snaps a spaghetti strap to the skimpy top she’s wearing, nearly exposing herself to a congressional committee.

Erhardt confirmed the two sides are debating the contents of a new ad but says he’s “optimistic” about a positive outcome.

–Steve McClellan, Adweek