Last May, Fox and the NFL had a big surprise for advertisers considering buying a spot in Super Bowl LIV. The companies said they would be reducing the number of ad breaks in each quarter of Sunday’s championship game from five to four, in order to speed up pacing and improve the viewing experience. The new format—which mirrors that of regular season NFL games, consolidating the same number of in-game spots into four fewer ad pods—resulted in a contraction of premium inventory: namely, the coveted A or Z positions (referring to the first and last ads of each pod).
Buyers sprang into action. The pod reduction “ignited our marketplace” and “created a lot of anxiety in terms of getting those positions,” says Seth Winter, evp, sports sales, Fox Sports. “I moved earlier than I have historically to get my clients the best, most premium positions available,” recalls Kevin Collins, svp, group director, strategic investment, Magna Global, which traditionally runs 8-12 spots in the Super Bowl.
As a result, Fox sold out of all its 77 in-game units by Nov. 22, fetching as much as $5.6 million per 30-second spot (though the average unit price was in the low to mid $5 million range) and wrapping the briefest Super Bowl market in nine years. (Late last Friday, Fox said it had inserted an additional pod into the game, featuring five more 30-second units, to capitalize on the massive advertiser demand.)
This year’s upheaval put a spotlight on the delicate art of Super Bowl placement, in which buyers and brands try to determine the best in-game slot to run their ads. Because the Super Bowl is sold by position, unlike other sports events—negotiated alongside unit price and matching spends or other investments—marketers must determine up front exactly where in the game they do, and don’t, want their spots to appear. “Placement is a very important concern for most of the advertisers in the game,” says Dan Lovinger, who oversaw sales for 2018’s Super Bowl as evp, advertising sales, NBC Sports Group. “They all have their own theory, though none of them are proven universally to be the truth.”
In discussions with buyers and the TV execs who sell Super Bowl spots, there’s no consensus about which quarter in the game is the best, and worst, to run ads in. However, all agree that A positions are by far the most valuable, no matter which quarter they appear in, followed by Zs. “A’s are the highest priority for most Super Bowl advertisers, because they get to control the narrative of the pod,” instead of potentially following a “less-than-scintillating” spot, says Lovinger. “Everybody would rather be first in the pod than in the middle of a pod.” Fox sold out its A positions by early fall, followed by Zs, says Winter.
Yet even Z positions are seen as risky by some buyers. “You’re going into [game] action, so it’s appealing, but are you really going into action, or are you going into a promo for one of the network shows, and then going into action?” says Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead, Mindshare U.S.
When it comes to Super Bowl positioning, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Winter. Brands are fixated on different quarters throughout the game, with no consistent pattern by holding company or category. Among the conflicting data buyers parse: In minute-by-minute ratings, the highest-rated ad pods are in the third and fourth quarters, but ad retention studies show that viewers are more attentive to spots that run earlier in the game. Plus, buyers have to commit to a position long before they know which teams might be qualifying, and therefore what kind of game to expect: A blowout will probably soften ratings in the second half (though there hasn’t been a lopsided Super Bowl score since 2014). This year, the third quarter sold out the most quickly, says Winter, a change from a decade ago, when the first and second quarters attracted more early interest.