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Volume 22 No. 23
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Sports networks celebrate Super Tuesday, lucrative political season

While many may have overdosed on this year’s 24/7 election cycle, the sports networks just can’t get enough of it.
That’s because the candidates are spending big on ad spots to get out the vote.

Home Team Sports has sold five times more political ads for this week’s Super Tuesday primaries than it did four years ago — selling Bernie Sanders spots on Altitude and FS North and Marco Rubio spots on FS Oklahoma and FS Southwest.

This continues a bull market that started last year. The Fox Sports-owned ad sales group sold a whopping 10 times more political ads from July to December 2015 than it did four years ago. Former GOP candidate Scott Walker bought a schedule during the University of Iowa’s football games on Big Ten Network, and Hillary Clinton ran ads during Boston Bruins games on NESN.

This election cycle has generated enormous ratings for the networks that produced the various candidate debates. It’s also seen an unprecedented stream of ad revenue for live, local sports.

Home Team Sports, which handles ad sales for most of the country’s regional sports networks, expects to ring up close to $10 million in political candidate spending this cycle. Prior to 2008, that figure was closer to $200,000.

“A lot of [candidates] were on a lot earlier than ever before to try to get ahead of February in Iowa,” said Stephen Ullman, director of political ad sales for Home Team Sports. “I’ve never seen this amount of activity around the primaries. In the past, the majority of our business has been September to Nov. 1 — the last 60 days of the election.”

The story is different for national networks, which don’t start to see political ads until a few months before November’s general election. NBC Sports Group, for example, expects to sell some political ads during its Olympic coverage and its top-rated “Sunday Night Football” games.

“National TV platforms really won’t do anything until we get into the post-convention season,” said Seth Winter, NBC Sports Group’s executive vice president of sales and marketing.

But the crowded fields and competitive races have led to an earlier ad sales cycle that has increased revenue for local sports channels.

Ullman started selling spots in the summer of 2015 in important early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

“You’re advertising in August and September for a primary that’s not taking place until February 2016. That was one of the biggest unusual things in this cycle,” he said. “Normally, I wouldn’t see any money on Big Ten Network until August or maybe September of 2016 for a presidential race. We actually started seeing money in July 2015.”

It also helped Home Team Sports that the early Iowa and New Hampshire primaries were covered by big networks in big markets. Candidates who bought time during Iowa football games paid a premium to be on BTN, a national network. “You’re buying the entire network,” Ullman said.

The New Hampshire primary campaign was covered by the Boston market, one of the country’s biggest and commanding prices that approach six figures.

“Those aren’t cheap markets,” he said. “It’s not like we got a whole bunch of business in St. Louis or Kansas City where spots sell for $1,000.”

The sheer number of candidates vying for the presidency also helped sales. At one point 17 Republicans actively were running. BTN’s final Iowa football game featured 14 ads from candidates.

“Usually, you have two or three on either side,” Ullman said. “As deep as the GOP was, it was pretty crazy.”

Ullman also credits his company’s efforts to push local sports more aggressively to the candidates’ campaigns, using the consistent talking points all ad sales departments use: Live sports is DVR proof and reaches more women than some would expect. Home Team Sports commissioned research that showed RSN viewers are more likely to watch games live and trust advertisements than typical TV viewers.

Ullman told a story about the Clinton campaign questioning the strategy of using a female-focused advertisement for Iowa football games on BTN and Bruins hockey games on NESN. He said that he responded by saying, “There are no pro sports in Iowa — it’s Iowa Hawkeye football. The entire state tunes in on Saturday afternoons, and the women 35-plus composition is 38 percent. The Bruins have the exact number in Boston.”