Inside dope on a match not made in football heaven
In the early 1980’s, I was called into a meeting at Ogilvy & Mather. Our client, Pepperidge Farms, was Campbell Soup’s smallest division. We constantly told them, “You’ll do better by buying your schedules with Campbell’s lead agency, not with us!” (I knew. I’d worked on Campbell’s primetime business at BBDO, its lead agency.) But the media planners at Ogilvy & Mather wanted water from a stone, a big splash with no discernable money. Pepperidge Farms resisted all the ideas we threw at them. Yet only twelve years later, they and all other Ogilvy & Mather clients, including Duracell, all bought into something I’d fought for. Here’s what happened.
I was told by NFL Enterprises that I was hired to sell NFL Sunday Ticket because of my enthusiasm. The first person I phoned responded as follows: “I want this, Billy! My competition does not get this, Billy! I’ll be in New York next week, Billy. I want half of the avails between opening weekend and the Sunday before the election, Billy! We’ll work out the pricing at the St. Regis, Billy! Don’t make me look bad with the tip, Billy” (David Bienstock, CEO of Target Enterprises LA media services would not have even taken my call had I not known his brother from BBDO.) Target LA’s 1996 client, Bob Dole, was running for President against the incumbent, Bill Clinton. It wasn’t hard to explain NFL Sunday Ticket to David Bienstock. He’d been a Media Buyer at Benton and Bowles. He is the only media guy who gets that the per-vote value of viewers of lower rated shows is greater than the same on higher rated shows. David made his name in New York at Benton and Bowles, moved to LA and started his own political buying service. He bought for Pete Wilson’s Gubernatorial Campaign and has cornered the market on ballot initiatives, a very lucrative franchise.
1996 was the first year that NFLST was measured by Nielsen. Paul Klein and I told advertisers that it would be a blowout rating. It was. The problem was that only two buyers understood it. David, who was looking for unique product placement for his presidential candidate and a former NBC Sports VP who left to become President of the firm that serviced Pfizer and Arm and Hammer. His enthusiasm was real. “I love this stuff,” he said. But his assistants had a hard time—as did I at first—following the dots from NFL uploaded, backhauled and then downloaded signal to subscribing homes or public place in order to insert their ads on all eight 1pm games–on eight different sets in commercial places–and then, after that, on all five 4pm games. These direct-to-satellite ads preempted the ads for one’s local Ford dealer.
The graph Paul assembled with Nielsen showed that when the 1pm games spilled over, one could see the unduplicated audience to both games. In fact, NFLST got a 40 share in homes with their own big satellite dishes and, as well, DirecTV dishes (the exclusive provider of NFL Sunday Ticket until YouTube won the 2023-2024 contract). NFLST was the reason AT&T bought DirecTV. They paid the NFL on par with the league’s other broadcast partners. The sharpest buyer of all, Gray Advertising’s Jon Mandel, a consultant to the NFL, took my call saying, “I was wondering when someone was going to bring this around.” Whether or not YouTube will get more advertisers, it will have a huge advantage in distribution. But the stand-alone broadcasts of Thursday, Sunday and Monday Prime, the increase in end-of-season Saturday games and now the new Thanksgiving tripleheader reduce the stash.
The advantage Paul got me to grasp was that NFLST’s commercials ran 13 times for the cost of one NFL game on FOX or CBS. The agents preferred the one game. It was one expenditure that didn’t demand agents explaining the uploads, downloads and backhauls to clients. But when we unearthed the commercial positions, our deal was almost dead. NFL Enterprises threw a fly in our ointment. Had we known that only one of NFLST’s four :30 spots each week came during the game itself, we wouldn’t have bothered. Two spots were during halftime and the last of the four came after the final gun. I told prospects that it was “pre-overtime.” In point of fact, one NFL Enterprises higher up came to a meeting at Y&R and didn’t grasp why the young account executives didn’t snap it up like Bienstock had. She thought everyone who was hearing about NFLST for the first time wanted to work with NFL Enterprises so badly they’d fight for those pre-overtime spots. Her assistant was more belligerent. When we met with the Grey Adverting group, he questioned several young women militarily, “Who are you? What accounts do you work on?”
Meanwhile, a CBS salesman, who knew their names, accounts and birthdays was sitting outside waiting to entertain all of them. In renewing our contract, NFLST offered us no expenses for travel, much less a client lunch. My new contract was a two-sentence memo. Our accompanying chat included reminding me that I wouldn’t have a presidential prospect in 1997. The other shoe dropped quickly. They wanted to know who I was targeting. I called Breathe Right’s agent in Minnesota. They agreed it made sense that I call them. They did ads featuring star receiver Jerry Rice. But they wanted to get Breathe Right off the lower-price sports and into Monday Night Football. Then she said something that ticked me off.
“Scoop,” she said, had approached her on behalf of NFLST already. As I moved forward, again and again, “Scoop” got to my prospects first. NFL Enterprises denied sharing my client list but couldn’t explain how “Scoop” kept making sales calls before me. Did NFL Enterprises give “Scoop” copies of our sales presentation, too?
I was fired after confronting NFL Enterprises over sharing my list. I showed Paul the letter I got from them. He said, “A lawyer wrote this.” I made two calls. One was to someone I didn’t know, but tracked down. Sweet guy. He’d worked on NFLST in 1995, “I can’t tell you what a black eye she gave me.” Then an ABC friend called me. He and his brother went to NFLST after me. Soon after, he sent me a note, “Billy the Stern!” It’s amazing you sold anything!” I called a friend’s father, a lawyer in Minneapolis who represented former Vikings GM, Mike Lynn in his grievance against the Vikings. He said “Billy, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Forget them!” My parting shot to NFL Enterprises was homage to Anton Chekov, “You’d leave me drunk and in the gutter!”
By the year 2000, Direct-to-Dish pro sports was becoming an established satellite medium with NBA League Pass, NHL Center Ice and MLB Network all joining NFLST. But just as in broadcast, the ratings were higher for NFLST than NBA, NHL and MLB combined. I called DirecTV on my own to ask if I could pitch the presidential candidates…just the presidential candidates. They were more helpful than NFL Enterprises, “Tell them that the presidential race is an unencumbered category.” It was the fourth NFL season after Dole/Kemp bought it and yet Al Gore’s campaign from Tennessee, “where all rednecks turn orange on football Saturday,” never heard of it. They said they’d look at the proposal. They never called back or took my follow-up calls.
YouTube’s ad sales team will likely sell NFLST’s commercial inventory next season. I wish them luck. NFL Sunday Ticket isn’t a tough sell. But it’s hard to get political buyers to learn new tricks. Yet, for the want of NFL’s Sunday Ticket in Florida alone during 2000, U.S. history could be different.