When basketball fans tune in to an NBA doubleheader Thursday night on TNT or the start of ESPN’s coverage on Friday, they will have a courtside seat to a good chunk of the action. Both networks will avail themselves of a new “rail-cam” that puts viewers just feet from play – so long as the drive to the net remains on the side close to the camera.
Indeed, the sidelines – devoid of fans who can’t attend the match-ups due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic – will offer new opportunities to the TV companies that pay millions each year to put basketball on their screens. Standard Media Index estimates the media industry lost $240 million in advertising in April due to the suspension of the NBA’s season. The season typically wraps in June. Disney and WarnerMedia are in the midst of nine-year deals that have been said to be valued at more than $2 billion over their terms.
The return of sports to active play has been a boon to the media industry, which has used new baseball games, golf matches and Nascar races to bring back risk-averse sponsors who put their money into hibernation once the pandemic scuttled the production of live sports telecasts. But NBA play is even more critical than those others, suggests Jon Diament, executive vice president and chief revenue officer of WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports. “The NBA has some unique reach among millenials compared to other programs that are out there, and this demo has not been watching a lot of traditional TV,” he says, in an interview. “It’s a perfect spot for reaching audiences that are very difficult to reach during a pandemic because they don’t have traditional viewing habits.”
Disney says the resumption of NBA play has brought commitments from more than 100 advertisers, with 25 sponsors who are new to the game signing on for post-season support. Turner is “pretty much in a sell-out position,” says Diament. The NBA is starting an eight-game round before the teams embark on playoffs.
Both outlets hope to fill the empty seats around the courts in Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex with new sights. Big screens at courtside sponsored by Anheuser-Busch InBev will allow some fans to show up on the sidelines and Mike Shiffman, ESPN’s vice president of production, believes fans will get to hear more from individual players and even coaches – so long as the cameras don’t intrude on proprietary conversations that might give away strategy. “You do feel closer to the game and it’s a much more intimate experience,” he notes. Both networks – which are also handling many production duties for regional-sports outlets – will use cameras that can be placed in areas typically filled with fans and offer up the sounds of sneakers on the court or even the yell of frustration from a player whose shot gets blocked.
At a time when Major League Baseball’s chances to finish its season are under scrutiny and skepticism abounds over the NFL’s plans to mount a full season, basketball’s backers seem more confident. The league has placed its teams in a “bubble” around the Walt Disney facility, which appears (so far) to be working. The MLB and NFL have allowed their teams to travel, and baseball’s Florida Marlins have had to postpone games because multiple players came down with coronavirus infections.
Viewers are likely to see advertisers use the games to pivot to new messages that dovetail with the changes consumers have made in recent months. Turner’s Diament predicts restaurant ads will focus on contactless delivery and take-out; entertainment ads will focus on streaming video; financial-services ads will center around low-mortgage rates. “A lot of businesses have shifted,” he says.
Including TV. In seasons past, Turner might have sought a premium from sponsors eager to get in on the first game of the year. Not so in 2020. The opening games “usually have really high audience estimates, and that will generate a significant premium in our unit costs,” says Diament. For this condensed season, advertiser who wanted to get in on the open had to agree to buy packages across the rest of the term. That ensures ad support for both the games that draw big audiences and others that may not be as important, the executive says. “We’ve never really done that before.”