All sports games have been canceled. Now Fox Corporation is trying to get a bevy of blue-chip sponsors to plan for their return.
Executives at Fox Sports have in recent days held videoconferences with some of the advertising industry’s most influential executives in hopes of starting conversations about placing ad dollars in live sports broadcasts scheduled for the third and fourth quarters. It’s one of the first signals that Madison Avenue, which has been plunged into chaos by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on TV production, sees signs of normalcy approaching in months to come.
“I do hope that by the time we get to the last part of June, really July, you ‘ll see some of the sports back on. That’s purely conjecture on my part, but I think that’s what we are hoping and planning for,” says Seth Winter, executive vice president of sports sales for Fox Sports, in an interview. “When that happens, we kind of have to go from there.”
Winter and other Fox Sports executives, including Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks and Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports’ executive vice president and head of strategy and analytics, have in recent days met with top buyers at Interpublic Group’s Magna, Omnicom Group’s Optimum Sports, Horizon Media, WPP’s GroupM and Dentsu Aegis Network to discuss laying some ground for the months ahead, especially the third and fourth quarters, when Fox typically features Major League Baseball’s World Series, and NFL games on Sunday afternoons and Thursday nights.
Buyers agree that sports will likely be the catalyst that prods advertisers back into a more normal relationship with TV networks. In recent weeks, the TV-advertising marketplace has been thrown into disarray, with sponsors of big-ticket sports events like the NCAA basketball championships, the NBA Finals, the NHL season and the now-postponed Olympics scurrying to figure out if they should pull ad money out of deals for games that may never air or take place months from now. Some clients are asking to cancel their ad commitments and take money back. Others are requesting that ad plans be pushed back to later weeks and months.
“This is an extraordinary time, and all avenues need to be explored to help our clients,” says David Campanelli, executive vice president and chief investment officer at Horizon Media.
Fox Sports has suggested to advertisers that the NFL and college-football seasons will take place as normal in 2020-2021, and brought up the idea of a “compressed” Major League Baseball season. Other executives have raised the notion that the NBA and NHL could finish the seasons they have currently suspended. All that makes for a late summer, fall and winter that may be loaded with tons of sports, particularly since the pandemic has crimped production of new episodes of TV series.
“Most people recognize we are going to see a lot more sports in the fourth quarter than we have ever seen,” says Winter.
Fox has good reason to wade into negotiations. Executives know there will be a scrum for ad dollars once sports restart, and advertisers will likely rush to cobble together schedules for whatever sort of holiday season America can expect this year. What’s more, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 means hundreds of thousands of dollars in so-called “scatter” advertising that might have automatically gone to NBCUniversal, which has U.S rights to the Games, have essentially been shaken loose.
But there’s also no guarantee the dollars will be there. The economy has been shaken to its core and some businesses may not be able to advertise. “Our clients are from all corners of industry sectors, and just as their businesses have been impacted at varying levels, so their rates of recovery will vary as well, and all will be assessing the budget levels as appropriate,” says Tom McGovern, president of Optimum Sports.
Buyers and sellers think this year’s “upfront” ad market will be unlike anything seen in recent memory. In a typical year, media agencies collect their clients’ budgets and use that money as leverage in these annual discussions over advertising inventory in the next programming season. But in 2020, each advertiser has been affected differently by the pandemic.
Some travel advertisers and automotive marketers have pulled back on ad spend, according to buyers, while some manufacturers of health and beauty goods and some fast-food operation who can offer “contactless delivery” have thrived. But there’s no one-size-fits-all maneuver that can solve every single issue.
“The standard upfront timing is right around the corner and clients are focused on dealing with April, not ‘20/21 upfront budgets,” says Campanelli. “We are going to protect our clients’ interests by working with networks to allow each client to come to market as their business conditions allow.”
Fox’s Winter brings unique insight into the matter. He has managed TV stations and sold ads for news programs, including those on MSNBC. He spent nearly 20 years at NBCUniversal, many of them selling its sports portfolio to advertisers, including multiple Olympics and Super Bowls. Under Winter’s aegis, Fox Sports was able to sell out its recent Super Bowl broadcast ahead of time – a feat that hasn’t been as easy to accomplish in recent years. He isn’t known for being shy about trying to start a sales conversation, but also knows the pulse of any market.
“I don’t think we know yet how we do this year’s upfront,” says Winter. “We don’t know what the situation will be across the myriad of categories and the myriad of clients within those categories. We don’t know what all their businesses will be like. We don’t know the impact of the pandemic on their supply chains, on the creation of new products. What do those businesses look like? What businesses won’t be coming back?” he asks, adding: “This is kind of a puzzle we need to figure out together” with media agencies.