EXCLUSIVE: With the 10th edition of the Playoff set to cap off a high-rated season starting on New Year’s Day, Disney says advertising inventory is nearly sold out for the semifinals and championship.

“We have a lot of consistency with brands,” Deidra Maddock, VP, Sports Brand Solutions, Disney Advertising, told Deadline in an interview. “Not even in just the August-to-January window, but on a year-to-year basis.” Of the 15 official ad partners for the CFP, she added, 13 have had a presence for multiple years and scatter buys are relatively limited. “When brands are making this commitment and knowing that this is a space they want to be in, it’s not a ‘Hey, let’s dip our toe in the water and try it out.’ This is something that they’re investing in.”

The level of buy-in is a welcome development for Disney as a challenging 2023 winds to a close. Linear TV advertising remains soft across the broader industry, and uncertainty about distribution for all TV programmers has followed the media giant’s bruising fight with Charter Communications last September. ESPN is readying a stand-alone streaming version of its flagship network for launch by 2025, which could complicate the balancing act. Disney CEO Bob Iger, who said last summer that linear TV “may not be core” to the company, later reaffirmed that networks offer “a means of aggregating audience and amortizing costs, of basically reaching more and different people.”

College football comprised a large chunk of ESPN’s $3.6 billion of advertising revenue during fiscal 2023, a tally that came in flat compared with the prior year. (Ad revenue across all of Disney totaled $11.5 billion.) Measurement firm EDO’s research found viewers to be 3% more likely to search for brands shown during games on ABC/ESPN compared with viewers of rival broadcast and cable networks in primetime. On social media, college football content registered a 7% increase in average daily unique users over 2022 levels, with healthy gains in minutes spent, page views and visits. Advertisers on college games, EDO found, get a return equivalent to nearly six ad units on competitive networks during prime time.

Viewership has been strong, with only the NFL proving a bigger draw. Fox aired the year’s top telecast, Michigan vs. Ohio State, which attracted 19.1 million viewers in November. Across linear and streaming, Disney recorded its second most-watched regular season since 2016, averaging nearly 1.7 million viewers per game across ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU, including 21 of the top 50 games overall. ESPN+ posted record numbers, with unique viewers and minutes of viewing climbing a respective 3% and 8% over last year.

The CFP semifinals on Monday will see Alabama play Michigan and Washington face Texas, with the championship game following on January 8. Surging viewer and sponsor interest led college football powers that be to enlarge the field of playoff teams from four to 12 in a new format starting a year from now. That dramatic expansion, whose details are still coming into focus, will introduce more rounds of games and potentially a more open feel akin to college basketball’s March Madness.

The shift also coincides with an expected change in media rights. Disney/ESPN is in the 10th year of a 12-year, multi-billion-dollar deal for the CFP. It will carry the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship game through 2026, but preliminary talks have begun in recent months for first-round games in 2024 and 2025 as well as the full package starting in 2026. Multiple media and tech companies have looked the new scheme, with the floor for rights fees reportedly expected to rise sharply from the level Disney pays under its current deal. (Regardless of how the playoff rights talks go, Disney next summer kicks off a period of exclusivity with the Southeastern Conference, a perennial ratings power.)

Asked about the new dynamic of a 12-team playoff field, Maddock said, “What I can say is that we’re all excited about the future” of what she termed “the next big thing” for the sport. For the moment, there are many unknowns and questions in terms of the schedule and process for choosing the 12 teams. “As we soon as we have those answers and can engage with [advertisers], we’re going to be doing that,” she said. “I’m anxiously awaiting, like everybody else.”

As tribal and regional as college football fandom can be, Maddock said its national value for advertisers remains strong despite the makeup of the playoff field. This year’s final quartet generated controversy after the selection committee opted to leave out Florida State despite the Seminoles having had an undefeated regular season. Among the four teams left, only Michigan and Washington are undefeated.

“The college football fan base, regardless of where you are in the country, tends to be very passionate and committed,” Maddock said. “That’s the mystique and the fun of live sports, that ‘any given day’ mentality and who shows up. The degree of competition and the parity of competition across a large swath of schools now is remarkable.”

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Source: DLine

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