Baseball advertising appears to have pivoted from a months-long slump to hitting above average.
Fox Corp. has sold more than 90% of its ad inventory in its share of games in Major League Baseball’s pandemic-truncated 2020 season, according to Seth Winter, executive vice president of sports sales for the company, as well as all the ad berths in its planned broadcast of four games slated to air this Saturday on Fox Broadcasting and Fox Sports 1. “All we have left are [commercial breaks] that come from pitching changes and other natural disruptions in the games,” he says in an interview. In a typical year, he adds, Fox would likely have sold 80% of its inventory before the season commenced.
Meanwhile, Home Team Sports, the Fox-owned unit that sells ad time on 44 regional sports networks, is trying to accommodate a new rush of advertisers trying to get time in local broadcasts. “The inventory is scarce,” says Craig Sloan, executive vice president of Home Team Sports, in an interview.
Just months ago, TV networks that hold rights to baseball were looking at millions of dollars in advertising parked well off the field. In March, MLB opted to delay Opening Day in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – leaving what is estimated to be $217.7 million in advertising spent across Fox and Fox Sports 1, TBS, MLB Network and ESPN, according to Standard Media Index, outside the stadium. As the league and its players bickered over terms of a shortened season, there was dwindling hope of seeing a home run in 2020.
Within the last two weeks, however, that trend has reversed. Snaring baseball ad commitments “is usually a marathon,” says Sloan. This year, he adds, “it’s a sprint.”
Taco Bell has opted to be the presenting sponsor for opening week across the Home Team package, says Sloan, the first time it has done so. Fox’s Winter says the usual suspects – beverage marketers, financial-services firms, auto advertisers – have returned to the game, but so too have some categories that aren’t always interested in peanuts and Cracker Jack. Retailers and tech firms are planning to tout technology that can be used for back-to-school purposes – whether kids actually get into the classroom or not.
And he expects this year’s big political campaigns to run commercials during baseball games. “We saw it in the Super Bowl – both Bloomberg and Trump,” he says. “I am now expecting to see it as we get into the fourth quarter.”
WarnerMedia, which operates TBS, and Walt Disney, which operates ESPN, declined to make executives available for comment.
The rush to baseball is the latest sign that TV sports are likely to lead the medium through its current financial crisis. With TV production scuttled by the pandemic, the networks have little to show advertisers for the coming fall season. If the big sports leagues can mount seasons, however, Madison Avenue is likely to gravitate to live games, which tend to attract sizable crowds that can’t skip past commercials. Already, advertisers have rushed to ESPN’s broadcast of the NFL Draft and the Michael Jordan documentary series “The Last Dance,” as well as a recent celebrity golf match mounted by WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports. Fox has seen success with its Nascar races, says Winter.
There’s no guarantee of a grand slam, or even a solid double. Advertisers continue to worry over whether the leagues will be able to guarantee player health and complete their seasons.
Once teams get on to the field, however, sponsors seem eager to play. A 30-second spot in a Fox baseball game typically goes from “the single thousands well up to the tens of thousands,” says Winter, depending on whether the game is on the broadcast network or the cable outlet. Most ads cost under $100,000, though the rules usually don’t apply to post-season broadcasts. Fox captured $94.9 million in baseball ads last year, according to Standard Media Index, while Fox Sports 1 took in around $10.7 million.
Home Team is buoyed by advertisers that had originally committed to baseball in the spring, says Sloan, as well as from interest by would-be sponsors eager to get into the games now. They are encouraged by the prospect of higher-than-usual ratings thanks to the fact that many fans may be able to watch day games and early-evening match-ups because they are not commuting to work. T-Mobile MillerCoors, Amazon, Abbvie and USAA are among the companies that plan to advertise, he says. The company is also offering the chance to run ads alongside clips that are passed around via social media and other means.
Baseball may also see a surge in ad dollars from marketers who had originally planned to run flights in NBCUniversal’s coverage of the now-postponed 2020 Olympics.
Some advertisers, however, are likely to stay away from the games. Casual-dining chains, travel markets, hotels and movie studios continue to be slow to return to normal marketing activity, simply because the pandemic has hurt their ability to operate. “We are really a good launch partner for new movie releases,” says Home Team’s Sloan. “But that has been impaired.”