SBJ/March 14-20, 2011/Media

Sports’ ad-sales winning streak clearly continuing with MLB

John Ourand
In a column about MLB ad sales last spring, I wrote:

“The pessimism and agitation of 2009 has been replaced by guarded optimism in 2010.”

Well, this year, the “guarded optimism” of 2010 has been replaced by unfettered joy in 2011. TV networks are experiencing the hottest ad sales market veteran sales executives have ever seen.

The market for live sports shows no signs of abating, underscoring the value advertisers increasingly are placing on all sports programming.

It doesn’t matter which sport is being televised. The NFL sold out earlier than ever. The NCAA tournament has been sold out for weeks. The NBA is posting gaudy ad sales numbers.

Even NASCAR, which is in the middle of a multiyear ratings drop, has benefited from advertisers’ appetite for sports. Fox sold out the Daytona 500 and says its pace for the rest of the season is ahead of last year.

Fox says demand is high for the All-Star Game, and ESPN is pacing ahead of last year for the State Farm Home Run Derby.
MLB provides the latest example. Every network that carries baseball is reporting a sales pace well ahead of last year, even though last year’s ratings performance was so-so, at best. Last season, Fox’s viewership was flat with the previous year’s record low numbers, and ESPN and Turner saw viewership fall more than 10 percent.

Despite those numbers, the ad market for MLB games is as strong as it’s ever been.

“We’re back to getting good increases for our products,” said Neil Mulcahy, Fox Sports executive vice president of advertising sales. “The law of supply and demand is in our favor right now.”

Last year, the big ad sales story was the return of the auto category, which dropped off drastically during the height of the recession.

This year, autos are still spending. And other categories, especially the financial and insurance ones, are showing similar strength.

The real story isn’t who’s spending but why advertisers are picking live sports to get their message out.
“We’re getting a lot of interest because of the live aspect of our games,” said Kyle Sherman, executive vice president of ad sales for Fox Sports Net, which handles national ad sales for all RSNs that carry MLB games. “Advertisers also like our ratings consistency. They know what they are buying. It’s an attractive, safe-harbor place to be.”

This year Fox expects to enter the season with its schedule about 90 percent sold. There is considerable interest around the All-Star Game in Phoenix, MLB’s annual midseason highlight, which advertisers see as the only big event they can buy all summer.

“Demand is that high,” Mulcahy said. “Demand for the All-Star Game, in particular, is crazy right now. We’re fielding more questions about the All-Star Game than we ever have.”

ESPN also is pacing ahead of last year, particularly for its biggest event, the Home Run Derby.

It has retained key sponsors, with Taco Bell back as presenting sponsor of “Sunday Night Baseball,” State Farm returning as title sponsor of the Home Run Derby and Chevy back as the presenting sponsor of the Sunday-night edition of “Baseball Tonight.”

TBS says it is 60 percent to 70 percent sold in the second quarter, and on pace to sell out the regular season. Turner executives say they are showing double-digit revenue growth over last year.

On the local level, Fox Sports Net says it is pacing 20 percent over last year, reporting that its biggest growth areas have been with men’s grooming and retail/big box stores.

Unfettered joy, indeed. 

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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