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TNT Sees Ad Demand Rebound as NBA Returns

(Image credit: Turner Sports)

The NBA will tip off on TNT with a growing number of advertisers looking forward to the return of sports after being sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

TNT will restart the season Thursday with an NBA double-header featuring rookie sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans taking on the Utah Jazz in the opener and LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers taking on the L.A. Clippers and Kawhi Leonard. 

“We’re starting to see a lot of advertisers come in confident that the NBA will have a safe and successful season and playoffs,” said Jon Diament, executive VP and chief revenue officer for Turner Sports. “We had a lot of pent-up demand because of the hiatus.”

Jon Diament

Jon Diament (Image credit: Turner Sports)

Advertisers also flocked when Major League Baseball started its season last week and signed up for the NHL, which is also about to resume skating.

“We could not be more excited,” said Ricardo Marques, VP for Michelob Ultra, the new official beer of the NBA, which is planning a unique digital courtside experience for fans.

Diament said TNT’s NBA opener is sold out and the regular season games that will be played are close to sold out. Some advertisers are waiting to see what happens in terms of the playoffs, but Diament said the post-season is already as well sold out as it has ever been.

“We expect interest to be through the roof,” especially among younger people and light TV viewers, he said. “Every game counts and you only have the best teams.”

As a result, Turner is asking higher prices for commercials, based on the big increase in viewing it expects, based in part on the big numbers Major League Baseball is generating. Turner’s ad revenues dropped in the second quarter mainly because of the NBA’s absence, but Diament expects that when the playoffs are done, ad revenues might finish up from last year.

“We’ve actually pretty conservative” in making ratings projections," Diament said, noting that Turner has been insisting that advertisers buy a consistent season-long schedule, rather than cherry picking just the potentially highest-rated games.

When the league stopped hooping in March as players tested positive for the virus, most NBA advertisers--including the NBA’s official marketing partners--had bought full commercial schedules. Nearly all of those commitments shifted from the spring to summer and fall.

Since then most businesses have adjusted to doing business amid a pandemic. “You’ve got a lot of categories that are quicker healthy by now.,” Diament said, pointing to automakers selling cars, quick-serve restaurants offering takeout and media companies promoting streaming. He added that some companies that haven’t advertising in the NBA before might this year because the fall is an important selling season for them, including back-to-school.

Most key sponsorships were renewed, with the NBA Tip-Off presented by Autotrader, the American Express Half-Time Report, Inside the NBA presented by Kia and NBA on TNT presented by State Farm coming back, joined by the recently announced The Arena presented by Tractor Supply.

A new NBA sponsor is Microsoft, which is working with Michelob Ultra on its Courtside Experience.

“What the NBA allows us to do is something that has never been done before literally in the history of sports, which is creating a virtual fan experience in partnership with the NBA and Microsoft,” Marques said.

At each NBA game, Michelob is giving away about 300 tickets to sit courtside virtually. Their faces will be seen on TV via 17-foot video boards that will surround the courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. Those fans will also be able to talk to one another via Microsoft’s Together mode.

“We think this sort of experience will bring the athletes closer to the fan and the fans closer to the game,” Marques said. “There’s nothing that can replace the actual experience of sitting courtside, but this is as close as we can come for the time being.”

Michelob has been able to produce commercials to promote the experience and its NBA sponsorship despite the restrictions caused by the pandemic.

It shot a commercial with the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler with a one-man crew directed remotely from New York, and has another teaser video with former Chicago Bulls Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen that relies heavily on computer-generated graphics.

“We’ll have a number of broadcast integrations throughout the game, many of which will of course call attention to the Michelob Ultra Courtside Experience,” he added.

Michelob Ultra's video wall puts fans courtside

Michelob Ultra's video wall puts fans courtside (Image credit: NBA)

Marques noted that during the pandemic, beer sales at bars and restaurants were hurt, though in-home consumption partially offset that. “We’ve seen consumers coming back to well-known trusted brands, such as Michelob Ultra,” which he said was the fastest-growing brand in the category.

“We think the NBA opens up an opportunity for us to connect Michelob Ultra with a new set of fan and new markets where we see expansion opportunities,” Marques said, noting that in some cases, the brand will be sending different messages to different part of the country.

“Our tagline is ‘it’s only worth it if you enjoy it’ and we believe that the NBA symbolizes that active enjoyment story and gives us ample opportunities for storytelling,” he said.