Advertising during sports broadcasts

The Super Bowl is coming up and with it, some of the most expensive timeslots for ads. That just got me thinking about just how do the advertising sales and schedules work for sports broadcasts. Unlike regular shows or certain sports, the number, and maybe length, of commercial breaks is unpredictable. Maybe the drive is terminated by a punt on 4th down, in which case, there’s time till the other offense comes out. Or maybe the drive goes on till there’s a touchdown. So how does the network sell timeslots? Are there any broadcast guarantees? Any good expositions on the net on this topic?

I am not aware of any cites to read, but I can tell you what I’ve observed from years of watching NFL games. All assertions are just my opinion.

Commercials are sold by quarter. There is a set number of ads that run in each quarter, plus the standard 2:00 warning blocks at the end of each half. So a giddy company exec might say that his commercial will be run “during the first break of the third quarter”, for example.

The in-game breaks are random, but there are almost always more than enough. Two breaks after every score, plus one break after every non-scoring change of possession, plus breaks for all timeouts and reviews. That’s a lot of breaks.

Notice how as each quarter winds down, you’ll see more “break times” staying within broadcast. (Usually the camera will go into the booth, where the announcers chat about how the game’s gone so far.) The first time you see a logical break-point not go to commercials, you can be 99% sure that there will be no more commercial breaks that quarter.

Replays added a new wrinkle once they started going to commercial breaks, and I think they might be in a different category. I’ve noticed that after all the commercials have already been run for a quarter, if there is a replay challenge, they will still go to commercial. They can’t be sold separately, though, since there may not be any reviews at all. I think in those cases, the commercial break is likely to be wall to wall network promos.

It is striking how different the ad sales are depending on the broadcast. Primetime Sunday and Monday night games have way more commercial breaks than Sunday afternoon games. The Superbowl, no doubt, has the most.

I’m guessing that if a quarter runs down before all its ads have been aired, there are a couple things that might happen. Either the unaired spots get pushed to the end-of-quarter break, (which I doubt,) or the refs will call a tv timeout. Couldn’t say for sure.

One thing I can tell you is that virtually every single commercial break during the Conference Championship games was exactly 110 seconds long. (30 second skip is the greatest VCR/DVR feature ever.)

Note that my observations aren’t just from watching games; I tape (and later re-edit) all Giants games, and have done so for several years now. The re-editing process has given me way more insight into NFL commercial breaks than I ever wanted.

My take on the subject:

Although when stoppage in play occurs, and how long it lasts (some injuries take awhile to make sure the guy’s ok before they move him), in general, most games last around three hours. As you say, there’s a stoppage of play between possessions. Each team also has three timeouts per half, and there are “scheduled” “TV timeouts”. These commercial breaks can certainly be tweaked to within thirty seconds (or even 15, if necessary) by delaying the feed and/or making the referee wait for a signal from the booth before he allows play to resume. Most likely, commercials near the end of the fourth quarter would be the most expensive, as most people will be glued to their screens at the end of a close game. Seeing as how many commercials are played more than once, I’d wager that the contracts are written as “will play X commercial at least Y, but no more than Z times, with at least W runs in the fourth quarter.”

Also, in my re-editing of the 2006 season, I have begun to suspect that “inside the 2:00 warning” blocks (for both halves) are sold independently of their quarters. So I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that giddy exec say that his spot will air in the “second break after the 2:00 warning before halftime.”

When are the scheduled tv timeouts? Do you mean things like the end of quarters and the 2:00 warnings? Other than those, there are no guaranteed stoppages.

Your X, Y Z scenario sounds completely plausible, but I don’t think end-of-game commercials are the most expensive. The primo spots are the first commercial break in each half, since that’s when everyone is most likely to still be watching.

Also, good call on injuries. Forgot about those. (Re-editing those is great; they say “so-and-so is down”, then I cut immediately to that guy leaving the field, either by walking or by stretcher. Very satisfying cut.)

I was shooting from the hip, but by “scheduled” I meant, “if they need to sell more commercials”. Or, as you said, the refs will call a TV timeout. I read once (probably in one of those “Strangest Football Facts” books about an early football game where one of the network guys ran onto the field before the ball was hiked to stop the play, because they were still airing commercials. May or may not be a true story.

Concerning the cost for timeslots, I have NO idea! But I betchya the crowd watching the OU-Boise game were glued to the screen at the end of that game!

So, not to hijack the thread, but do you watch the games more than once? I’d love to watch an edited game I cared about, if I could somehow keep myself from finding out the score before the “rebroadcast”.

On another note, when watching games live, it seems like they’re struggling to come up with entertainment for the crowd, at times. Coolest one I saw? In Phoenix, they split the field into two, and had the championship teams from 4 YAFL age-groups play two seperate exhibition games. Pretty funny going from watching 6’2, 220 lb men to watching 4’2, 120 lb kids!

I generally watch the entire previous season during the summer months, from June to August, to get pumped up for the new season. Some games I watch many times over, like the 05 Broncos-Giants game with the tremendous 4th quarter comeback. No doubt the 06 Giants-Eagles (big comeback) and 06 Giants-Falcons (7 sacks) will get added to my favorites once I finish re-editing this season.

They wouldn’t be fun to watch in lieu of the live broadcast, though. Too many cuts for proper building of suspense. (On long scoring drives by opponents I generally only keep snap-to-whistle, so for example those 16 play scoring drives by the Seahawks in early 06 fly by in a mere couple minutes each.)

So what do they do when a game goes into overtime? Do they sell contingnet ads? Overtime can last for 13 seconds (opening kickoff run back for TD) to a full 15 minutes. What about overtime in a playoff game. That could be multiple “quarters”

I have multiple overtime games of varying length on tape. Last year’s Giants-Seahawks & Eagles-Giants, plus this year’s Giants-Eagles game all went deep into the overtime period, being won with less than 4:00 on the clock. (One of them was down to the final minute.) Also some much shorter overtimes, like the Giants-Cowboys and Vikings-Giants, both from 05.

None of them had any commercial breaks during the overtime period whatsoever.

I believe that they have “scheduled” TV timeouts at the first stoppage of play after a specified number of minutes have run off of the play clock.

The media time-outs are part of the agreement between the NFL and the network. In long shots of the sidelines, you may see a man with puffy, elbow-length gloves, which the officials can easily spot. When he crosses those gloves across his chest, the next break in the action will be a Media Time-Out.