Advertisers weigh paying for advertising as interest in Ravens reaches new levels

The TV ads are quirky, the advertiser unusual: Advance, a Cockeysville-based document management company, has run a campaign during Ravens games showing executives kicking around off-the-wall ideas in a boardroom.

Business-to-business advertisers don't normally target mass audiences. Football games typically offer up a steady diet of beer and car commercials. But Advance has used its ads to build a reputation for approachability and service.

"We're really trying to build on the idea that we're about relationships, and about being made up of a group of people who are going to care about your business," said Jeff Elkin, president of Advance. "We're not selling one product as much as we are showing people who we are. Partnering with the Ravens is a different part of that. We know it works. They're the marquee organization in this area, with tentacles that reach so far and into so many things."

Local advertisers say the Ravens' run to Sunday's AFC Championship game has paid off. If the Ravens' double-overtime thriller in Denver on Jan. 12 drew roughly one of every two television households in Baltimore, Sunday's much anticipated rematch with the New England Patriots promises to deliver an even larger audience. Given how playoff football brings together a diverse crowd and instills such excitement, there may be no better time for advertisers to try to reach Baltimore consumers, local advertising insiders say.

"It becomes a cultural thing," said Mike Skandalis, an executive vice president at Owings Mills-based advertising firm MGH. "The town gets behind this. It transcends sports. Nothing else delivers an audience like this."

Nielsen estimated that 1.1 million people — of 2.7 million in the area — watched the CBS broadcast of the Ravens beating the Broncos. Reaching that audience isn't cheap or simple. Rates for a television spot during the Ravens' wild-card game against the Indianapolis Colts doubled, while the divisional game against Denver saw prices rise threefold over the normal rate to about $30,000 for a 30-second spot, several sources within the industry said.

But playoff TV advertising becomes an expensive proposition for local businesses. Advance has opted not to purchase an ad for Sunday's AFC championship game, instead buying more affordable time during other Ravens-related and NFL programming, Elkin said.

The Maryland Lottery, a frequent advertiser during Ravens game and a business partner with the team, chose to buy just one ad during Sunday's game.

The decision whether to advertise during the playoffs often is based on what the Lottery wants to promote at that time, said Jill Baer, its director of creative services. This year, it quickly produced an homage to Ray Lewis after he announced he would retire.

"Playoffs, championships and, ultimately, the Super Bowl offer a unique opportunity to reach a huge audience with just one spot, while showing support for a local team," Baer said. "There are very few media opportunities that offer such an ideal combination."

Other advertisers who have been with the Ravens since the beginning of the season also can ride the playoff run, said Howe Burch, executive vice president and managing director of Baltimore-based advertising firm TBC. 1st Mariner Bank could further leverage its relationship with quarterback Joe Flacco; Royal Farms could continue to run commercials featuring defensive tackle Haloti Ngata enjoying its fried chicken.

"Brands that have had a relationship with the team will continue growing that," Burch said. "This is the ultimate payoff for them."

Very few spots remained for local advertisers last week. WJZ had a few segments available Monday morning, but most of the inventory was gone by 11 a.m., said Jay Newman, the station's general manager.

Only a small portion of the advertising pie is set aside for local commercials to be sold by the Baltimore CBS affiliate. And companies that signed season-long contracts last summer take up most of it. Newman wouldn't say how much time is not taken up by national advertisers, but did say the percentage does not change much from the regular season to the playoffs.

Advertisers looking to start an affiliation with the Ravens and NFL now — either to introduce a new product or reach an audience that has expanded far beyond the typical sports fan — can take a number of other approaches.

Some may buy time on television and radio broadcasts with Ravens-related content, which costs less but still has an increased impact during a playoff run. Others may look to radio, print and online advertising.

Unlike WJZ, which has the rights to all Ravens playoff games because of its affiliation with CBS, the Ravens' regular radio homes, 98 Rock and WBAL, had to pay an extra rights fee to secure the AFC championship and Super Bowl, according to Dave Hill, program director for both stations. He would not say whether the stations charge more for ads during the playoffs but did say regular partners receive preference when trying to buy time.

While developing broadcast commercials can be time-consuming and expensive, companies with smaller budgets can develop print campaigns in only a few days, Skandalis said. The Baltimore Sun has printed special sections or added pages in past years as a way to capitalize on the Ravens and Orioles appearing in the playoffs.

"The Sun's advertising partners are very enthusiastic about the Ravens and the opportunity to take advantage of the tremendous reader interest in our print and digital coverage," said Judy Berman, The Sun's senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Whether the return on investment is worth the soaring prices for TV ads depends on how well an advertiser can decipher who makes up the audience and then find a way to reach them, said Roland Rust, a University of Maryland business professor. While the Super Bowl is widely recognized as reaching "everyone," he said, the AFC championship doesn't have quite the same effect.

"It's not going to be just heavy-duty truck companies and beer companies anymore," he said. "But it has still got to be a company making a smart decision about reaching people and identifying with the event."

Now that the use of recording devices and the practice of watching television shows online has allowed viewers to skip commercials, live sporting events offer a rare opportunity to reach a captive crowd.

"Anytime you can get 50 percent of people in an area to tune in to something going on live, it is premium programming," Burch said. "There's going to be some up charge, and for most companies, it will be worth it."