Advertisers’ Appetite for Live Sports Keeps Growing

As the Upfront advertising market approaches, live sports is TV’s most muscular genre. And the NFL is so strong that its commercial inventory is likely to be snapped up by marketers, even while adding a primetime game on CBS, the highest-rated broadcast network.

CBS acquiring Thursday Night Football to crown its top-rated lineup as a simulcast with the NFL Network is the most important audible going into next TV season. “I don’t think there can be too much NFL on the market,” says Dan Cohn, client director, investment, at media agency Initiative. “Thursday Night Football is a great spot leading into the weekend for advertisers. It’s great for movie studios, it’s great for automotive, it’s great for home improvement. It’s great for retail.”

Buyers say the CBS games may draw some ad dollars from other primetime programming, but the NFL’s other TV partners are likely to find additional advertisers to pony up. Still working out details with the NFL, CBS declined to comment.

Other networks expect their NFL business to continue to grow. “While the money’s going to come from somewhere I don’t see it affecting us on Sunday,” says Neil Mulcahy, executive VP, Fox Sports Media Group. “More advertisers are planning more dollars into the NFL overall.”

Fox drew record viewership for the Super Bowl in February and leveraged the big game to get advertisers to support the launch of its new cable network, Fox Sports 1. Buyers say FS1 underdelivered the audience Fox promised. “People were thinking it would deliver like ESPN2 but it was more like ESPNU,” one buyer says. But those buyers also say make-good ads ensured marketers mostly got what they paid for.

Fox’s Mulcahy expects FS1 to grow. “We’ve only launched about 30% of the overall product. NASCAR, the Big East tournament, Major League Baseball are coming in the short term, and more NASCAR, USGA and World Cup are further down the road,” he says.

He added that FS1’s studio program is being retooled a bit, and that high-profile events will drive viewers to those shows. Fox Sports Live had record ratings following NASCAR’s Duel at Daytona on Feb. 20, he notes.

NASCAR is running 15% higher than last year, with 14 new sponsors at the starting line. And most of Fox’s regular season baseball sponsors on broadcast have also bought time on Fox Sports 1.

“We’ll sell out the regular season in the next few weeks, and we’re also doing very well in the All-Star Game,” says Mulcahy.

Fox Sports last year consolidated its broadcast, cable and digital sales. “We’re doing more business than we ever have in sports,” he says.

Unlike its new cable competitors, which have to fill 24 hours with low-rated talking head shows, Turner Broadcasting emphasizes a schedule of high-profile events including NBA and MLB playoffs and the NCAA Final Four.

“Technology has influenced sports in a great way because the fan can be engaged 24-7,” says Jon Diament, executive VP, ad sales and marketing at Turner Sports. “Advertisers are embracing that connection and doing it in a very creative way.”

NBC has next year’s Super Bowl. Fox got $4 million-plus per spot this year, and NBC will want more. “I don’t know the number, but I’m sure it will have a lot of zeros,” says Initiative’s Cohn. “People are more passionate about sports than for any other genre,” he adds. “It’s always sought after as a premium property.”


Sports leader ESPN reported a 10% increase in ad revenue in the fourth quarter. That figure included not only TV but digital, audio and print as well.

“We have scale on every screen,” says Ed Erhardt, ESPN president of global marketing and sales. “Advertisers want to buy multiscreen. The hard work we went through in being multiplatform guys for a long time has now really put us in a good position as the marketplace has caught up.”

The market for live sports continues to be strong, and ESPN has a winning schedule. “You have the NBA playoffs, the NBA Finals. You have the World Cup and then we kick off the college football season and we have the first-ever college football playoffs as the prize at the end. That’s a heckuva lineup to go into the marketplace with,” Erhardt says. “And, oh by the way, the No. 1 show on Monday nights, Monday Night Football.”

(Photo Credit: Rich Kane/Icon SMI 781/Rich Kane/Icon SMI/Newscom)

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.