Super Bowl pregame ads a tougher sell

Sales of Super Bowl ads are holding up fairly well, even at $3 million for 30 seconds. But commercial spots that will run in the pregame hours? That's a different ball game.

People who buy ad time on behalf of advertisers say NBC is having a tough time selling out the ads that will run in the four hours or more leading up to the Feb. 1 championship. Now the network is making deals to more quickly move unsold inventory for the less-watched but still pricey pregame spots.

"Things have been softening for a while," said Gary Carr, director of national broadcast at media buyer TargetCast tcm in New York. "There's some attractive pricing to be had."

For instance, prices for commercials that will air before the game are coming down perhaps by as much as a third from NBC's initial asking price, advertising buyers said. NBC declined to discuss pricing specifics.

Depending on the number of ads bought or the hour of the day, pregame ads can cost about half the price of an in-game commercial, ad buyers said. That would mean some of this year's pregame ads could cost more than $1 million for 30 seconds.

To be sure, pregame spots don't have the same cachet as those during the game. Companies that see the Super Bowl as a must-buy, with its 100 million viewers, already are committed to advertising during the game — and they're usually not the same ones that purchase pregame time.

While there's typically some unsold pregame spots in the final days before the game, several ad buyers said the bad economy is giving advertisers more pause this year. Sales took a hit after the economy took a drastic turn for the worse last September.

Another problem is that last-minute purchases of ads can be tough creatively. Companies are reluctant to run existing commercials, given the Super Bowl's reputation for inventive spots. With one week to go, ad agencies are running out of time to put together something memorable.

Still, advertising buyers were impressed that NBC was able to sell many of its spots during the Super Bowl for a good price considering the downturn. The list price was a record $3 million for 30 seconds, on average, compared to $2.7 million last year. TNS Media is projecting a record haul of $200 million in in-game ad revenue for NBC.

"Given this unprecedented recession, NBC is doing a great job," said Christine Merrifield, director of video investment at media buyer MediaVest in New York, a unit of Publicis Groupe in Paris.

Ad buyers said between six to 10 commercial spots are left to be sold for the game itself.

For the pregame show, whatever spots aren't filled will probably carry promotional ads from NBC, unless the network trims its pregame broadcast. The network said it's not unusual for remaining inventory to be sold at the last minute.

"We are progressing on pregame and traditionally much of the inventory is sold the week of the game," said Brian Walker, senior director of communications at NBC Sports in New York.

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