NBC Sports Is About to Make $1.4 Billion in 22 Days Thanks to the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics

2 years of aggressive strategy pays off for its ad sales team

The Winter Games in South Korea begin just four days after Super Bowl LII.
Illustration by Matthew Billington; Animation: Dianna McDougall

For the athletes involved, the two major sports events occurring over the next few weeks—Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics—represent the culmination of years of training, laser-focus and pushing oneself to the limit, all in pursuit of breaking records and coming out on top. The same goes for the NBC Sports ad sales team, which is overseeing inventory for both events (as well as Telemundo’s Spanish-language rights to the World Cup in June)—and has spent the past two years changing up its go-to-market approach in the hopes of scoring a record ad revenue windfall next month.

And thanks to a combination of new ad innovations, an aggressive strategy and some big swings, they are on track to do just that. NBC expects to collect “close to $500 million” in Super Bowl-related advertising revenue on Feb. 4, says Dan Lovinger, evp ad sales, NBC Sports Group, which will be a single-day record for a media company. That includes $350 million worth of in-game advertising, with 30-second spots averaging north of $5 million. Just four days later, the Winter Games will begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and NBC Sports is on track to surpass $900 million in total ad revenue for the 18-day competition, topping the mid-$800 million it raked in during the Sochi Games in 2014. Together, both February mega sporting events will bring a combined $1.4 billion in national ad sales; no wonder NBCUniversal is marketing the month as “The Best Feb Ever.”

But NBCU’s $1.4 billion bonanza wouldn’t have been possible without a two-year effort to integrate its sports programming with the rest of its portfolio, while enhancing the company’s overall offerings to marketers. Until now, “some clients thought of us as sports only, or they went to us individually for our sports opportunities,” says Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising sales and client partnerships, NBCUniversal. “But the power of the whole portfolio can do a lot of heavy lifting for a client.”

Particularly when that portfolio includes an in-house creative agency—NBCU’s Content Innovation Agency (CIA). On Feb. 4, it will unveil something never attempted by any of its network peers: the first-ever Super Bowl spot created and produced for an outside client (Monster Products, which makes headphones, speakers and cables). “It’s a new day for us,” says Yaccarino.

NBC Sports’ fresh approach has caught the attention of their biggest brand partners. Lovinger and Yaccarino are “constantly working to help maximize the value that you’re getting out of this, not just from a media buy standpoint, but even bigger: to look at the impact that a brand could receive,” says John Lisko, executive communications director, Saatchi & Saatchi, who oversaw Toyota’s Super Bowl and Olympics buys. “We’re working not just with their sales teams,” but also NBCU’s marketing and sports production teams, “to solve the problems that we have in the marketplace.”

The Super Bowl and Olympics cap a recalibration of the sports ad sales group that began in 2016 when Seth Winter, who headed the group for 11 years, talked to Yaccarino about stepping down. She tapped the 26-year vet Lovinger, who previously oversaw NBCU’s entertainment sales, to replace Winter that October. Lovinger, who kept the sports team fully intact, focused on “opening up the breadth of the portfolio to sports, and open up sports to the breadth of the portfolio,” he says. “The one thing we hadn’t done a ton of was creating those avenues of communication that would help advertisers take advantage.”

Matthew Billington

That included repositioning Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football, where demand had stagnated late in the 2016 NFL season. So ahead of the 2017 upfront, Lovinger worked on selling brands on “the value of the NFL,” combined with other NBC properties like This Is Us and Saturday Night Live. “Pretty soon you’ve got a very interesting proposal where you’re talking about fusing entertainment and sports together in a way that most people can’t, certainly at these ratings levels,” he says. That approach generated $100 million in upfront business with new NFL advertisers for the Sunday and Thursday games.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 29, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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