How NBC was able to sell Super Bowl inventory so quickly—and for so much money

Brands are starved for big audiences and high impact, and networks know it.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

With less than a month to go before Super Bowl 56, NBC Sports is making a killing.

NBCUniversal, which has the broadcast rights for the Feb. 13 game in Los Angeles, is cashing in this month as crypto and NFT brands jockey for remaining ad inventory. But the network had cleared ad-sales records long before the last-minute negotiations.

In July, NBC told news outlets it had sold 85% of its available advertising inventory, and by Sept. 8, the network only had “a few units left,” Dan Lovinger, NBC Sports Group’s EVP of advertising sales, said at the time. (Lovinger confirmed then that the broadcaster would intentionally hold a few ad spots back.)

Plus, sold ad slots have commanded as much as $6.5 million per 30-second spot—nearly $1 million more than last year’s high of $5.6 million.

The continued demand seems to defy logic when looking at the Super Bowl’s shrinking audiences. Game viewership has dwindled since 2015, when a record 114.4 million people tuned in. Last year’s matchup brought in 96.4 million viewers, making it the least-watched Super Bowl since 2007.

So what gives? A few reasons point to why NBCU is cashing in on the game this year, one of which is that the Super Bowl still brings in a massive number of eyeballs compared to the rest of TV.

Less is more

Much of it boils down to simple supply and demand, which has allowed the television advertising industry to command high rates despite viewership shrinking across the board. NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell spelled it out at an investor conference in June: “Reach is increasingly difficult to find in the market, and if you have reach, then you have a commodity that’s very valuable,” he said.

And the Super Bowl is an extremely valuable commodity. Even though viewership has decreased, it’s decline is far less dramatic than that of other live broadcasts—like awards shows—making the game one of the few places left where marketers can expect huge viewership on TV.

“As viewership goes down on those different shows and people are less interested in [them], as a lot of it goes virtual, you’re losing out on some of those bigger marquee moments throughout the year,” said Kelsey Chickering, a principal analyst at Forrester.

That viewers can't be counted on to tune into live broadcasts amplifies the magic of the Super Bowl, in that it is perhaps the only major media moment where viewers are primed—and in many cases, eager—to watch the ads themselves, whether that’s during the actual broadcast, via media coverage, or later on YouTube. Last year, Chickering pointed out, people began searching for Super Bowl ads about three weeks before kickoff.

All that free marketing makes it easier to stomach the overall sticker price of a Super Bowl ad. In fact, “The Super Bowl has become more efficient based on the distribution of the ancillary coverage that it achieves through social and digital distribution channels,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director of sports marketing agency Optimum Sports.

A fast-moving market

There were some particularities of last year’s upfronts that helped NBCU lock in ad dollars early at favorable price points.

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For starters, advertising dollars freed back up in 2021 after seeing lengthy freezes in 2020. With a new level of confidence about moving through the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, marketers were more prepared to spend liberally and plan ahead in 2021, Chickering said.

"With two years of practice, brands, they just can be more confident navigating advertising in [a] pandemic,” she elaborated.

That, combined with the continued decline of linear TV—made worse by pandemic-related programming delays—means audience-retaining live telecasts are of even more value.

“We had less rating points available in the marketplace,” Jeff Gagne, Havas Media’s SVP of strategic investments, said of the 2021 upfronts, explaining that several businesses were ramping back up “with full marketing budgets to go chase them.”

In upfronts past, marketers would typically spread the wealth across different platforms, channels, and networks, Gagne said. Not so last year. Networks moved to sell much of their inventory at once, sometimes requiring multi-platform commitments from advertisers. That forced marketers to move a lot of of their TV money all at once.

That allowed NBCU “to leverage a traditional NFL market, a traditional upfront market, a traditional calendar market, and try to control all those dollars in one marketplace,” Gagne said.

Seeing—and selling—double

This year, NBCU had another card to play in negotiations: the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which will have just kicked off when the Super Bowl airs. In front of the cameras, the network has called this a “once in a lifetime” opportunity; behind the scenes, that was also the message to marketers. The Olympics factored into Super Bowl conversations, Gagne said, giving marketers another incentive to spend.

In fact, back in 2019 NBCU swapped Super Bowl broadcasting years with CBS precisely so it could sell the Super Bowl and the Olympics together. “NBC has taken the approach that one can build on the other,” Carey said.

That, of course, feeds into the way advertisers justify the Super Bowl sticker price—by activating for weeks or months before the game itself. Super Bowl marketing is less about one live broadcast and more about the investment that occurs before, during, and after the game, NBCU is hoping that it can absorb much of that additional investment.

This year–at least before the ratings are in–it seems to be working. And as new brands flush with cash continue raising the market with last-minute bids, some buyers say the humble Super Bowl spot is still not a bad way to spend a few million bucks.

“The NFL continues to be, year in and year out, the safest bet in terms of media as far as reaching an audience at scale in a live moment,” Gagne said.

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