NBC Confident Tokyo Olympics Ad Sales Will Top 2020 Bookings

·7 min read

For a subset of industry types and a cadre of obsessive weirdos with their noses pressed to the glass, tallying the advertising dollars and tracking the Nielsen ratings have become as much a part of the Olympics experience as the medal count. But with less than a month to go before the long-delayed Tokyo Games get underway, number crunchers of all stripes should prepare themselves for something of a data lag.

NBC execs said on Wednesday the company is unlikely to disclose exactly how much ad sales revenue it generates with its Summer Olympics coverage until it sells out its entire stock of inventory, down to the last 30-second spot. If all goes according to plan, NBC will still have some commercial time up for bid all the way up through the Closing Ceremony, in which case a final dollar amount won’t be available until the second week of August.

As has been the case since NBC first broadcast the Summer Games back in 1988, the sales team has salted away a chunk of ad units as a hedge against two opposing outcomes. In the event the Tokyo Olympics exceeds expectations and marketers want to expand on their initial investments, the rainy-day units are there to meet demand and scare up some bonus revenue. If NBC doesn’t meet its ratings guarantees, the reserved airtime may be doled out as make-goods, or Audience Deficiency Units.

Because there’s no way of telling which role those reserved units will play until the Games are already well underway, NBC execs could only offer directional guidance during yesterday’s press event at Rockefeller Center. Dan Lovinger, executive VP of ad sales for NBC Sports, indicated that the Tokyo total ultimately will surpass the $1.25 billion in ad sales that his team originally booked before the Olympics were derailed in March 2020, although he didn’t say how much inventory remained unsold or had otherwise been set aside.

Thirty days out from the Opening Ceremony, NBCUniversal has lined up more than 120 advertisers for the Tokyo Games, a 20% bigger client roster than had suited up for the 2016 Rio Olympics. According to Lovinger, new business accounts for $500 million of NBC’s Olympics sales thus far, as money has poured in from the technology, pharmaceutical and social-media categories.

Clearly, the effort to book $2.5 billion in advance sales, only to have to turn around and do it all over again a year later, is nobody’s idea of a good time, and the NBC team likely will be relieved to see the last 15 months recede in the rearview mirror. “After making sure everyone was OK, there was a moment where we said, ‘Wow, do we really have to start all over?’ And then we had to start climbing the mountain again,” recalled Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal’s chairman of global advertising and partnerships. “There was so much uncertainty about if it was going to happen, when it was going to happen, but once it became clear [that the Games were back on] we just started along that track again.”

The reclamation effort hasn’t been a matter of merely hitting “play” a few months after depressing the “pause” button. From the moment the Tokyo Games were postponed back on March 24 of last year until the British Open was canceled just 13 days later, the U.S. death toll from coronavirus soared from 593 to 9,654. Nothing was normal and planning anything beyond the next fearful trip to the grocery store was all but impossible.

“Businesses were in disarray,” Lovinger said. “As a result, most of them took the option to start all over again … so in the course of the past year we’ve actually rebuilt our book.”

As U.S. vaccinations have increased, leading to the lifting of restrictions in 43 states, advertisers have been afforded more clarity than they’ve enjoyed since the pandemic began. But as much as the gradual reopening of the country has made for a far less uncertain marketing environment, news from Japan, where just 7% of the residents are fully vaccinated, hasn’t always worked to NBC’s advantage.

“There have been times when we have had to answer questions of clients as reports have come about the viability of the Games, which can make you feel like you’re not getting as far as you need to,” Lovinger said. “But it’s the nature of the pandemic and people naturally having legitimate questions that you’re never quite sure until you’re there …. and now we’re there. And obviously, now that the state of emergency is being lifted in Tokyo and other parts of Japan, nobody has any doubt that the Games are going forward.”

Earlier in the afternoon, NBC pitched the Tokyo Games as the first post-pandemic global event, a gathering that it believes will serve as a balm for an audience that has been isolated, destabilized and otherwise menaced by the health crisis. At times, they laid it on pretty thick. “I really believe that this is going to be the most meaningful Olympics of our lifetime,” said Molly Solomon, executive producer of the Games, who noted that the world is “craving a shared experience.” Today show co-host Savannah Guthrie, who’ll pair up with Mike Tirico to cover the July 23 Opening Ceremony, said she hopes the Olympics “are going to be a real healing moment,” while Jenny Storms, chief marketing officer of NBCU’s sports and entertainment divisions, promised to deliver the “biggest and most impactful media event ever.”

Lovinger’s expectations are similarly elevated, although he dispensed with the hyperbole. The sales chief said Tokyo would exceed the total audience delivery for the Rio Games, during which NBC averaged 27.5 million viewers across all platforms during the 15 nights of competition. “This is far and away the biggest media event of the year,” Lovinger said. “There’s nothing like it; this is the biggest reach vehicle in television.”

Rio marked NBC’s second most-watched Olympics behind the 2012 Summer Games. The London event averaged 30.3 million viewers, and NBC notched its single largest audience with the Opening Ceremony, which delivered 40.7 million viewers.

Ratings for the first few nights of NBCU’s Olympics coverage may be slow in coming, as its guarantees include impressions made on third-party platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitch. In addition to waiting on data from outside digital players, NBC’s decision to have its out-of-home deliveries tallied by Tunity may present more than a few logistical challenges, as Nielsen already incorporates that viewing segment with its standard live-plus-same-day data.

Of course, unless you’re an Olympics advertiser, you don’t really need to worry about how NBC’s ratings are holding up. Back in the mid-1970s, when Chico and the Man was pulling a 28.5 rating, a full two weeks would elapse before the Nielsen data would make its way back to the network. A few sunsets here and there while the array of cross-platform Olympics impressions gets processed needn’t be such a terrible imposition.

However long it takes for the revenue and ratings numbers to roll in, it’s a safe bet that NBC will deliver the summer’s biggest audience while it rakes in an extraordinary amount of ad revenue over the course of those 17 days. Rule of thumb: If a Yalie got caught up in some James Bond-grade subterfuge in order to nail down a sports property—in 1995, Dick Ebersol commandeered Jack Welch’s private jet, and in so doing finessed five Olympics from under the noses of Rupert Murdoch and Michael Eisner—then that package was worth its weight in gold.

It still is. “There is no surrogate available compared to the Olympics,” Yaccarino said. “The dominance is 10x anything else, and it may be even more as the Games roll out.”

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