As much as it’s not difficult to understand why Adland types get so worked up about Super Bowl units—aside from being the one day of the year in which people actually seek out commercials, where else are you going to reach more than 100 million consumers with a single buy?—chatter about CBS’s Big Game sales is more than a little premature. With 160 days to go before America’s great secular holiday kicks off, sweating the Super Bowl ad market is like picking out baby names while idly swiping through Tinder.
While the network has established a $5.5 million target for each 30-second in-game ad unit, a rate that lines up with Fox’s year-ago ask, CBS isn’t in a hurry to line up buyers for Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled to take place in Tampa on Feb. 7. When it’s CBS’s turn in the Super Bowl rotation, little if any inventory gets sold during the spring/summer upfront marketplace. While the sales team will reserve space for marketers who say they’re interested in buying time in the year’s most-watched broadcast, the network prefers to wait for the NFL season to get underway before locking in deals.
If that strategy runs counter to how NBC and Fox manage their own in-game units, advertisers have adjusted accordingly. If the market’s strong, the delay often works in CBS’s favor, as it has the latitude to raise its asking price as the calendar slides toward December and fewer spots are left on the table.
Back in December 2015, when the broadcaster still had a few slices of airtime left to sell ahead of Super Bowl 50, then-CBS Corp. President and CEO Les Moonves boasted that the sales squad had squirreled away the units to sell at a premium to a last-minute shopper.
“Two weeks before, some movie producer who thinks he has a bad movie will convince the studio to spend more money on it… and they’re going to beg us for two spots,” Moonves told an industry conference, before going on to intimate that the final spots would sell for a few million dollars more than Budweiser and Doritos shelled out. (Movie studio marketing heads are often terribly indecisive—it’s not unusual for the creative to arrive at the broadcast center just a few hours before the opening kickoff—and as such, far more likely to indulge in a zero-hour Super Sunday buy.)
On the other hand, in the event of a softer ad market, advertisers who hold their ground do so knowing that the network will eventually dial down its original asking price. Which isn’t to say that there’s usually much latitude for advertisers to look for bargains; in the 20 years John Bogusz and Tony Taranto have been selling the Super Bowl for CBS, the average in-game unit cost has slipped twice versus the previous rate.
That CBS prefers to negotiate in the fall was particularly felicitous this time around, given the state of the upfront bazaar. Not only did the coronavirus pandemic effectively scuttle the annual sales calendar (for the first time in nearly 60 years, the networks did not present their primetime schedules to buyers and advertisers), but actual negotiations were stalled as marketers began trying to make sense of a world largely devoid of movie theaters, airports and restaurants.
While some progress has been made over the last month or so, it wasn’t until this week that advertisers were given the rundown on the shows that will air in the fall primetime slots. To characterize the network schedules as a mixed bag is to traffic in extreme understatement; with production studios on hiatus, the September premieres largely will be limited to game shows, Canadian imports, midseason holdovers and reality/competition fare. As one might expect, the lack of scripted content has helped boost the rates for regular-season in-game commercials.
Which brings us back to the Super Bowl. Aside from the general lack of urgency—even in a non-pandemic year, it’d still be far too early in the cycle for anyone to have to worry about getting shut out of the broadcast—the general uncertainty surrounding the upcoming NFL season and the Big Game itself will likely keep advertisers from making moves for quite some time. Naturally, CBS wouldn’t hold marketers to their Super Bowl commitments should the game be scrapped, and in the event of a delay, the money would simply move with the shifted broadcast.
None of which is to say that marketers haven’t already reserved time in Super Bowl LV, regardless of the uncertainty. Insiders say that PepsiCo, which in 2002 usurped Coca-Cola as the official soft drink sponsor of the NFL, is expected to put in for its usual allotment of spots for both its flagship brand and Frito-Lay subsidiary. (The soda giant invested some $35 million in ads during Super Bowl LIV.) That said, Pepsi is said to be taking a wait-and-see approach to its halftime show sponsorship, a cornerstone of its marketing plan since 2012. Without fans in the stands at Raymond James Stadium, the traditional musical extravaganza may not be sufficiently eye-popping to suit Pepsi’s vision of how its mid-game investment is meant to look and feel.
In the event that a Super Bowl is in the cards this winter, there’s also little question that Anheuser-Busch will repeat as the game’s biggest spender. The NFL title tilt and AB InBev are now more or less synonymous; this year’s broadcast marked the 40th time Budweiser served as the Big Game’s exclusive beer sponsor, and the brewer invested $52 million to promote four of its brands.
And though CBS and its advertisers won’t reach for the Champagne until the confetti angels start forming on the Tampa turf, the bullishness with which the NFL is approaching the coming season is contagious. Regular-season ads are now nearly sold out across the four networks, and if CMOs aren’t exactly breaking out their checkbooks to secure Super Bowl units, CBS is happy to play things down to the wire. In 2019, CBS put a bow on its Super Bowl LIII sales about five hours before the opening kickoff, cutting it a bit closer than it did three years earlier with Super Bowl 50. While Moonves had told investors that the network was nearly out of sale some three months before game day, CBS still had a few final units to move just a day before the Broncos and Panthers began suiting up at Levi’s Stadium.
In a year in which just about nothing has gone as planned, CBS’s Super Bowl strategy offers advertisers a rare taste of consistency. And if its luck (and pricing) holds, the network can expect a windfall of some $425 million in ad sales revenue. It’s a big “if,” but at this stage in the game, what isn’t?