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Fox, ESPN Sold Out as Baseball Starts Play

Los Angeles Dodgers player Justin Turner during a 2019 regular season game.
(Image credit: Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)

With umpires about to shout “play ball” and start a delayed Major League Baseball season Thursday, advertisers have been rushing to buy commercials.

Seth Winter, executive VP of sports sales at Fox, said that its regular season MLB games are nearly sold out, with revenue 25% higher than the network had anticipated.

The Walt Disney Co. also said ESPN was seeing high demand for baseball and was sold out for the opening week and the rest of the regular season.  

Live sports have been one of the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just like sports fans, who are champing at the bit to watch live games, advertisers crave the large, engaged audiences sports attract.

“There’s been an amazing influx of interest over the last 10 days,” Winter said. "The ad community and the client community just wants so certainty around the ability of these sports to compete. We saw it with NASCAR. We saw it with Major League Soccer. Now we’re seeing it with Major League Baseball.”

Most of the inventory went to baseball advertisers that had signed up during the 2019-20 upfront. Earlier this week, Fox said baseball inventory was 90% sold out, but there was a significant influx of additional advertisers who wanted to get their money down, Winter said. 

In the last minute rush, prices rose by double digits, compared to a year ago, he said.

A lot of the ads were bought by official MLB sponsors, but new advertisers have jumped in as well.

Disney Advertising Sales said financial services, alcoholic beverages and insurance have a large presence in its opening week games. For the entire regular season, strong categories include automotive, insurance, quick-serve restaurants and alcoholic beverages. 

Fox will kick off its broadcast season with four consecutive games on Saturday, something the network has never done before.  

“We’ve got a great day with some fantastic teams, including the World Champion Washington Nationals taking on the Yankees. I think people realize that there’s going to be a lot of interest. People are going to be watching.”

With interest in sports in general and baseball in particular heating up, Fox will soon start selling World Series inventory.

“We wanted to get our arms around the regular season first,” Winter said “Advertisers realize its in their best interest to do so, so we’ll engage pretty quickly. Forgive the baseball allusion, but we’re thinking that’s going to be a home run as well.” 

Winter said that Fox and its clients haven’t made specific contractual arrangements in case the season can’t be concluded.

Winter said that just as Fox worked with its partners when the season was originally postponed, it will work with them again should there be another disruption. “We’re all in this together. We’re going to watch out for each other and we’ll address it as it comes. We’re not going to do anything to damage their business and vice versa,” he said.

Shortly after baseball throws out its first pitch, the National Basketball Association plans to tip off in its Orlando bubble and the National Hockey League will drop the puck on its Stanley Cup playoffs. On the horizon is the most powerful sports programming, the National Football League.

“We’ve done some football business, very much account by account. But I will say this without going into too much detail, momentum is clearly picking up,” Winter said.

“As we get closer to each season and our clients and partners are comfortable that we can get a product on the field the conversations accelerate,” he said. “What we're seeing now is very encouraging in terms of the health of the Investments and the belief that having learned so much over the last four to five months around safety and health protocols that we can get a product on the field.”