BY JON LAFAYETTE The spring sports marketplace isn’t as hot as Kobe Bryant, but it’s alive and well. Unlike the bustling scatter market for entertainment programming, buyers say that ad prices on cable are being held down by the vast amount of inventory available. “Spring is probably the biggest sports season. Everything’s going on except the NFL,” said Kim Kadlec, SVP and director of the Coca-Cola national broadcast account at Universal McCann. “What we’re seeing is a tremendous increase in the number of networks airing sports and the number of hours. That changes the market tremendously.” That means that while other entertainment programming is showing double-digit gains in scatter, sports programming is showing mid- to high-single-digit gains. “Things are pacing ahead of last year,” said Sam Sussman, media director and chief sports buyer at Starcom North America. “The good news is things have picked up. Not at the pace of broadcast or cable entertainment. They’re writing increases, but there’s still inventory that’s available.” And while it’s not a grand slam, cable network ad sales executives appear happy scoring singles and doubles. “Sports is very solid,” said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN ABC Sports customer marketing sales. With ratings for most events trending higher, “I think we can give great value in a marketplace where there isn’t a lot of programming that reaches male viewers.” Among the high-profile events in the cable lineup are playoffs for the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, conference finals in men’s college basketball, the women’s basketball Final Four and the beginnings of the baseball and NASCAR seasons. A new contract with the NBA puts more regular season and playoff games on cable this year than ever before. Starcom’s Sussman said that as the NBA season has worn on, ratings for basketball have improved, particularly on ESPN. “Sales have picked up for them. They’re doing a little bit better in the second quarter than in the first quarter. Their playoff inventory is going a little bit quicker than their regular season. They still have got it to sell,” Sussman said. “The NBA’s got a nice little buzz around it,” said ESPN’s Erhardt, noting that inventory is tight, with the playoffs at a high-90% sellout rate. Similarly, Trish Frohman, SVP sports sales at Turner Broadcasting, said TNT’s NBA playoff games are in a “very strong sellout position” at about 85% sold. She said that with so many more games on cable this year, comparisons to last year are hard to quantify, but “we’re way ahead. Pricing is up in the high-single digits.” But while both networks say NBA inventory is tight, Sussman said, “my guess is they’re going to be selling playoff inventory through the playoffs.” Buyers noted that during the regular season, NBA games on ESPN were desirable because they were attracting a younger male audience than those on TNT. But come playoff time, TNT might have an advantage because it has exclusive rights to the NBA’s Western Conference finals, while ESPN covers the Eastern Conference. Following last year’s buzzer-beating final between the Lakers and the Kings, plus a general perception that the Western Conference teams are more exciting, Turner has been getting higher rates for conference finals games than ESPN. Buyers estimate that during the first four games of the conference finals, Turner is getting about $130,000 to $140,000 per unit, while ESPN is getting $100,000 to $110,000. Later games in the series are a bit cheaper. “The West is certainly the stronger of the two conferences,” said Ray Dundas, SVP and group director of national broadcast at Initiative Media. “The teams are helping us by making it exciting,” Turner’s Frohman said. And because TNT has the Western Conference finals again next year, Turner is selling two-year packages to some advertisers, she said. While the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a kickoff to the spring sports season, most of March Madness is on CBS, not cable. (Last week, CBS said it might shift some NCAA coverage to cable if it broadcasts coverage of war with Iraq.) ESPN will be showing the first game of the tourney and a slew of conference playoff games leading up to the big dance. But its ace in the hole may be its coverage of the NCAA’s women’s tournament, where it will televise all 65 games for the first time. The tournament is 90% sold out. “Regular season ratings and demos are very strong for women’s basketball,” Erhardt said. ESPN has also sold its first national promotion for the women’s Final Four to Minute Maid. In addition to having a presence on ESPN’s air, Minute Maid will promote ESPN’s coverage on 60 million juice packages. The value of the deal was not disclosed. ESPN added a new advertiser in Harley-Davidson, which has an umbrella sponsorship called “A Week of Madness” running March 31 through April 8, with an animated billboard running before men’s National Invitation Tournament Games, some women’s games and other tournament programming. Within all the games in the women’s tournament they also sponsor a feature called “Game Track” that runs in the second half of each game. Harley-Davidson also has Final Four Reports in SportsCenter. ESPN is having a good season with the NHL. The network and its broadcast sister ABC Sports will air the Stanley Cup finals. Buyers say for its first two games, ABC is getting between $100,000 and $150,000 a unit, while ESPN generates $60,000 to $90,000. “ESPN has been doing extremely well from a ratings standpoint, in some cases even out-delivering their estimates,” said Sussman. “Hockey does extremely well with 21-to 34-year-olds.” ESPN helped itself by cutting back on the number of games it broadcast this year by about 30%. With NHL sponsors locked into their spending, that helped tighten inventory, contributing to price increases in the mid- to high-single-digit range, buyers said. “Suffice to say we are very well sold in our NHL hockey,” said ESPN’s Erhardt, quantifying that at “approaching 90%.” In local hockey, Fox Sports Net says its regional sports networks are 80% to 85% sold out, which is a bit better than last year. NASCAR’s ratings continue to climb on Fox and FX. “I think NASCAR is in pretty good shape,” said Tom McGovern, director of sports marketing at OMD. “More people recognize it as a real, legitimate sport. It’s still a good deal versus other sports.” While players are sweating in spring training, ESPN’s Erhardt said it’s a little early to talk about baseball ad sales. “We’re pacing ahead of last year, which is a good thing.” Turner’s Atlanta Braves coverage has been enhanced by a deal with Major League Baseball that makes its coverage part of the league’s TV contract. That means official baseball sponsors can satisfy some of their required ad spending on Turner. “For us, that’s great,” said Turner’s Frohman. “That marketplace is just starting to move. We’ve written a lot of business in the last month.” But, she added, “baseball’s a long season, and there’s a lot of inventory.”

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Distributors and TV brands came together Thursday in support of an industry initiative to accelerate efforts to make it easier for advertisers to incorporate addressable TV into their campaigns. Participants

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