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Volume 21 No. 1
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RSNs post big gains in political ad sales

Even though political advertising migrated to digital and social media at record levels during the presidential election, regional sports networks still posted big increases in their political ad sales compared with four years ago.

RSNs registered more political ad sales in 2016 than ever before. During the recent election season, political advertising rose to become the RSNs’ second-biggest ad sales category in 2016 behind beer. Four years ago, the political category placed fifth.

Not only that, but RSNs posted a 50 percent increase from the last presidential election four years earlier, bringing in revenue of more than $10 million.

In an overall election cycle that seemed to provide nothing but bad news for national political TV ad sales, the RSN numbers are remarkable, representing wild increases from previous elections. Before 2008, for example, RSNs brought in revenue of about $200,000 in political ad sales.

Game broadcasts from key battleground states such as Michigan saw some of the biggest jumps in revenue from political ads.

Those huge increases are a direct result of an overtly political push by Home Team Sports, the group that sells advertising for most RSNs and Fox’s entertainment and sports networks. HTS aggressively started courting political ad sales in 2007, when it hired Stephen Ullman, director of political ad sales, to persuade candidates and their political action committees to spend their advertising budgets on sports.

Ullman’s pitch centered on sports as a big local audience filled with undecided voters. To set RSNs apart from local news — which still sees most local political ads — Ullman set up something called “pod exclusivity,” which means one political commercial per commercial break.

Despite the huge increases, HTS’ general election haul was less than expected, as the Trump campaign, in particular, eschewed television buys for social media buys. From July to December 2015 — in a particularly busy part of the primary process — HTS sold 10 times more political ads than four years earlier. During the general election, that figure dropped considerably.

Once Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became the established candidates, those wild ad sales increases slowed.

“From an overall cycle sense, Trump did less,” Ullman said. “Hillary was on with stuff as early as July. Everybody took their overall projections way down. We did pretty well. It was a condensed window in a different format.”

HTS is taking that cue. While it still believes that RSNs’ political advertising can grow, their digital programming will become a bigger part of their sales pitch.

“If anything came out of 2016, the new and innovative ways to reach people digesting content in places where they never have before became topical,” Ullman said. “We’re in a great position for that.”

That includes live local streams of MLB, NBA and NHL teams as well as websites that trade in highlights. HTS can locally insert ads into the live streams, Ullman said. It also will push preroll video around highlight packages.

“Fox has a lot of those assets,” he said. “We just weren’t out there on the forefront as much as I would have liked to have been. Local sports and the RSNs are right there with it.”

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