The Return to Live Sports Will Force TV Advertisers To Rethink Their Approach

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"On TV And Video" is a column exploring opportunities and challenges in advanced TV and video. 

Today’s column is written by Kevin Krim, president and CEO at EDO.

Over the past several months, we have seen COVID-19 take a terrible human and economic toll and completely change our daily lives. For the TV advertising industry, the cancellations of major sports and other live events created their own turmoil, as TV networks and advertisers rely on these events to drive marketing performance through live sports’ immediate reach and strong viewer engagement.

Now, after four months without most sports, we’ve slowly and cautiously seen the return of the key leagues. It is not without risk for those involved, but sports-starved fans have been waiting with fingers crossed.

If major live sports continue to play safely, they will be more heavily watched and more valuable than before. This is evidenced by the performance of the sports-centric events that have taken place without live audiences over the last few months. When the NFL announced it would conduct its draft virtually, sponsors of the resulting TV broadcasts reaped the benefits with sports-hungry viewers. The 2020 NFL Draft drew a highly engaged 15.6 million viewers during its opening round, shattering the previous record of 12.4 million.

ESPN also found particularly strong success by moving up the highly anticipated 10-part documentary series “The Last Dance,” showcasing Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, from its original planned start date in June to April 19. According to the network, the documentary series averaged 6.1 million viewers during its Sunday night debut, making "The Last Dance" the most-viewed ESPN documentary ever.

Facebook, Reese’s and State Farm were the three lone sponsors for this five-week documentary series, which saw strong consumer engagement with ad spots, notably the custom creative spots that ESPN developed.

However, the two most powerful live sports on TV – the NFL and college football – will find themselves in unfamiliar territory this year. While typically having to compete only with baseball playoffs and the beginning of the basketball and hockey seasons, audiences and brands may have to decide where to go when the NFL and college football seasons begin in September, with the NBA and NHL playoffs simultaneously in full swing. Brands usually heavily weight their media mix toward football as it’s the single best-performing TV platform to drive viewer engagement, but this year will bring about a more difficult set of choices.

Will always-popular Sunday Night Football games drive their usual strong engagement if the highly-viewed NBA finals are on at the same time? There is mixed evidence of audience loss when the NBA and NFL go head to head with marquee matchups on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but this will be the first time viewers will be faced with an overlap of so many different leagues and their playoffs. Brands should dig into how their specific audience targets responded in the past when those rare overlapping games were on TV and manage their media plans accordingly.

These unprecedented circumstances over the next several months will force brands to be creative and thoughtful with their revised media plans. For example, Bud Light and Bank of America launched new spots to welcome the return of MLB, demonstrating their intention to make this league an important component of their live sports media plans.

And when it comes to their negotiations with networks on ad buys, we’re already seeing a departure from the traditional upfronts approach, with some moving toward more dynamic plans given the uncertainty surrounding programming and scheduling for the fall and beyond.

Performance-based guarantees should be considered by brands looking to get a strong return from their investments since there is so much still unknown about how viewership will respond as big live sports return.

Follow Kevin Krim (@kevinkrim), EDO (@edo_data) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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