With Euro 2004 due to kick off in little over a month, ITV sales staff are in stoppage time trying to squeeze every penny out of advertisers.
The tournament is the first real test for a merged ITV and the pressure is on to drive up revenues.
Arguably, ITV is starting on the back foot. It is already down by about £4m in revenues compared with Euro 2000, when Carlsberg paid that much to be the exclusive sponsor of its coverage. This time, under the rights format decided by UEFA, there is no package to sell, because official sponsors - Coca-Cola, McDonald's, JVC and Carlsberg - are guaranteed the beginning and end of sponsorship break spots.
But head of sales Gary Digby insists this has not hampered ITV. 'This brings Euro 2004 in line with the way the Champions League works. It does not restrict our ability to make money from spots. The question is whether we would have had to pay more for the TV rights deal if it wasn't already sponsored.'
For advertisers, Euro 2004 is a must-have. The European location ensures peak-time viewing, and the tournament is shorter than the World Cup, meaning viewer interest is better sustained.
It is difficult to make direct comparisons for revenues with Euro 2000, which netted ITV £169.4m - a figure inflated by an influx of dotcom money.
But ITV predicts audiences will outperform the 2000 event, which delivered an average of 7m viewers per live match, peaking at just under 15m for England v Portugal.
Digby says 98% of the ad inventory has already sold at prices 'similar to the 2002 World Cup'. A 30-second spot is thought to be going for about £250,000-£300,000, while the premium for appearing during an England game pushes the rate to £350,000.
ITV is pricing aggressively, yet Digby is wary of repeating the 1998 World Cup ad sales fiasco, which saw advertisers stay away in droves when the price of spots was deemed too expensive. 'You can push the price too far,' he admits.
In terms of advertisers buying into Euro 2004, car manufacturers make up the biggest sector by far. According to a media agency source, ITV has booked ads from 16 manufacturers across 30 models. Expenditure by car advertisers in June is predicted to show a year-on-year rise of 50% for ITV.
Media Planning Group (MPG) forecasts ITV's total June revenue will reach £130m, 9% higher than last year. But Digby dismisses the argument that Euro 2004 will lead to an inflation of media costs. 'The tournament will reduce media costs in total because of the extra viewers that will come to the channel.'
Andrew Canter, head of client services at MPG, disagrees. 'For certain audiences who don't watch much football - such as women - you will see inflation if the audience remains flat or declines.'
For advertisers, the main draw is the England matches. The BBC has secured exclusive rights to broadcast England's group match against Croatia and the quarterfinal in which the team will appear if it progresses that far.
TV buyers believe ITV's strategy of exclusively securing England's first two games - against France and Switzerland - will guarantee maximum revenues.
ZenithOptimedia estimates ITV will make £7m from the former and £4.5m from the latter. If England makes the final, ITV stands to pull in £40m.
Sharing the spoils
ITV's loss of viewers around shared transmission matches means it is keen to tie advertisers to booking across a range of games. ITV expects a clutch of non-England matches to draw decent audiences. The top three games in Euro 2000 not featuring a home nation drew 7.2m to 9m viewers each.
Outside ITV, talkSPORT and Virgin Radio are offering Euro 2004-themed packages around their coverage. But the Newspaper Marketing Agency (NMA) is being surprisingly quiet. It attempted to table a cross-newspaper ad package for advertisers around the Rugby World Cup, but is not doing so for Euro 2004.
NMA senior marketing manager Nigel Bromley says: 'We are making a more generic push, by promoting male readership of sports pages.'
For those brands unable to afford the big games on ITV, the option is to buy around lower-profile games or highlights packages. Eurosport, while drawing smaller audiences, is airing a mix of exclusive and delayed-coverage games. 'Eurosport is a complementary buy,' says Mike Lams, business development director at Eurosport.