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Sports Fans Like Matches, Not Ads. So TV Has Changed Its Game

Football is, at its core, a game of long-held rules and traditions. Come this fall, Fox hopes to break some of them.

Executives at Fox Sports expect to conduct a broad range of advertising experiments during “Thursday Night Football,” the primetime pigskin showcase that will air on Fox Broadcasting for the next five years under a rights deal valued at more than $3.25 billion.

“You’re going to have natural breaks at least four times per quarter,” notes Neil Mulcahy, Fox’s executive vice president of sports sales. “What can you do in there? Are there opportunities to do live commercials? A long-form commercial?” Mulcahy suggests Fox is open to everything from a two-minute movie trailer to having a member of the on-screen Fox Sports team talk about weekend sales on behalf of a retail sponsor. “It’s going to be as creative as the advertising client wants to be,” he says.

Live broadcasts of football, baseball and other sporting events are high on the list of TV’s most popular programs. For networks, the best part of sports is that viewers who watch live can’t skip past ads on a delayed-viewing platform. Yet with a rising generation of viewers trained to reject the notion of sitting through long commercial breaks, the sports leagues and TV networks are working furiously to blur the lines between when the games are supposed to stop and the advertising is supposed to start.

There’s good reason to cut back on traditional ad interruptions. Just as audiences have begun to migrate toward on-demand streaming of their favorite scripted dramas and comedies, so too are baseball, football and basketball fanatics finding new ways to watch their favorite sports. TV ratings for the NFL’s last season fell 9.7%, according to Nielsen, after a drop of 8% tumble in 2016. Even the Olympics isn’t immune to viewer fragmentation. With that in mind, sports executives see a future in which more commercial messages are tucked into “natural breaks” in game play rather than a standard commercial interruption — and the moves could spell the end for certain advertising formats that have supported TV sports for decades.

In their place: new ideas. Many networks have experimented with a “double box” that shows an ad in one screen and behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the field of play on the other. ESPN, for example, has used the technique during player time-outs in its coverage of Major League Baseball’s Home Run Derby, serving up a T-Mobile spot alongside a view of what’s happening back at the stadium, or during an NBA timeout, when it paired a State Farm commercial with a picture of in-arena action.

CBS Sports is mulling the idea of using a “double box” on golf, says John Bogusz, executive vice president of sports sales and marketing. ESPN has also begun running ads in which a TV screen in the commercial is shown running the actual game viewers tuned in to in the first place. The camera zeroes in on the TV screen, and the game takes over on screen once the pitch is over. The new concepts “should reward the viewer, and give them a vantage point of the live experience they would not normally have,” says Wendell Scott, ESPN’s senior vice president of multimedia sales. “There’s a reward, and it’s the advertisers or sponsor who is providing the benefit.”

Much of the networks’ efforts are driven by recent studies by the NFL. For the past few seasons, NFL executives have poured energy and resources into studying what it is that fans like and dislike about game broadcasts. The one big complaint that has been consistent: too many ad breaks made it seem that the game telecasts stretched on and on. And viewers really hated back-to-back ad clusters that appeared before and after a touchdown or kickoff, says Cathy Yancy, vice president of rights, policies, and compliance at NFL Media Group.

The result: The NFL and its TV partners cut the number of ad breaks in games by 25%, allowing for the remaining commercial pods to stretch a little longer. They cut those back-to-back interruptions by 91%, says Yancy.

The NFL pressed the networks to trim the number of messages within games, suggesting in-game promos for a Fox or CBS primetime show or a quick on-screen call-out for NFL.com get pushed “into commercial breaks or adjacent to breaks,” Yancy adds. “We had a goal of reducing that messaging by 30%.”

Major League Baseball has also tested new ideas, including digitally superimposing ad messages alongside stadium walls on the first and third baselines, says Noah Garden, the league’s executive vice president of commerce. And executives have encouraged the use of shorter ad lengths. Digital players have proven that shorter ads work well in streaming video, he says, but traditional sponsors are taking more time to embrace the concept. “It’s going to happen, because the fans demand it.”

Blink, and you might miss ‘em:  NBC’s newest attempts to interrupt your favorite sporting event with commercials.

Executives at NBC Sports have diligently studied the pace of play across the different match-ups the company features year-round — everything from Premier League soccer and National Hockey League games to “Sunday Night Football” matchups. “We have tried to map out where the appropriate spot might be for a shorter ad that doesn’t disrupt the game flow or disrupt the storytelling our on-air talent is trying to accomplish,” says Dan Lovinger, executive vice president of ad sales for NBC Sports.

He sees an array of opportunities to use what NBC is calling a “fast break,” or a short commercial pitch inserted at very specific moments of game time. Is there downtime during a hockey game after the puck is iced? Perhaps there’s time for a 15- or six-second commercial. Hard to leave a NASCAR race? NBC could run a short-form “picture-in-picture” ad that doesn’t disrupt the field of play. Big movie coming out? Maybe there’s a chance to have an actor from the blockbuster appear on set or shoot some custom content appropriate for game time. The idea, says Lovinger, is to hone in on specific moments of game play in each sport, rather than forcing the same commercials across different types of contests.

As new formats come to the field, there is some pressure to get rid of older ones. Football fans have long been accustomed to “billboards,” those five-second on-screen call outs to Budweiser or Verizon that pepper game play. But in some cases, NFL executives have noted as many as five per quarter, and have suggested tamping them down in favor of a short feature each period that focuses on players or the game, all with a sponsor attached. TV executives counter that the quick-hit plugs have long been handed out to advertisers who spend a lot during the season — and are still expected.

The matter has yet to be resolved. “Fans want to get back to the game,” says Yancy. “But we need to find the right balance of ways we can monetize that.”

In seasons to come, the rush to find ads that please a new generation of sports fans might be as frenetic and interesting as the sports themselves. “We are going to keep our eyes and ears open,” says Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer at CBS Corp. “We are always up for trying new things and being creative where we can.”

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