It’s now been more than three months since every major professional sports league shut down due to Covid-19, but it’s now looking like live sports will be up and running again by the end of July, reactivating billions in ad revenue that have been dormant since March.
On Tuesday night, Major League Baseball became the latest league to officially announce its return plans, following weeks of contentious negotiations between the league and the players association. Under the agreement, MLB players will report for a second spring training by July 1, and a 60-game season will begin July 23-24.
That’s a few days before the National Basketball Association’s tentative return to play, which is set for July 30. In the NBA’s plan, 22 teams will return, playing eight games before the start of playoffs, which will end by Oct. 13. All games and practices will be held at ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla.
The Wide World of Sports will also be the location for Major League Soccer’s MLS Is Back Tournament, which will be held from July 8-Aug. 11.
And the National Hockey League is also preparing to return, with formal training camps set to begin July 10, leading to a resumption of play—at a date still to be determined—in which 24 teams, playing in two hub cities, will compete for the Stanley Cup.
Finally, the National Football League remains on track for a full season of play, which would begin Sept. 10.
As Adweek wrote earlier this month, networks and advertisers alike are eagerly anticipating live sports’ imminent return, which should electrify the faltering TV ad sales marketplace.
Not only would live sports signal an important return to normal for the country, but they would also jump-start a TV ad sales marketplace that has been reeling. Altogether, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL generated more than $6.5 billion in national ad revenue during their last full seasons, according to Kantar Media, so media companies are eager to see sports advertisers spend money again.
The resumption of live sports would be “a very symbolic and real indicator of the move forward” to whatever the TV ad industry’s new normal will be post-pandemic, Seth Winter, evp of sports sales at Fox Sports, told Adweek recently.
The ratings for the resumption of Nascar races and the PGA Tour—and WarnerMedia’s hit The Match: Champions for Charity golf tournament last month—showed that “there is a thirst and a hunger for live sports,” said Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer for ViacomCBS domestic advertising sales.
While early live sports results were promising, “we’re doing our best not to overreact. But you can sense the excitement that surrounds events that are drawing audiences that normally would be reserved for more of the premium live sports properties,” Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, Omnicom’s sports media and marketing division, recently told Adweek. “Everything points to a consumer audience that’s just starving for competition.”
Sports ad sales teams had been still holding off on most negotiations until leagues set their return dates, as Fox Sports had done with MLB games given that “we have a lot of money in abeyance,” Winter said. But those talks are expected to resume as new schedules are finalized.
However, football is a different matter entirely. Because the NFL’s schedule includes Covid-19-related flexibility that would allow the league to either move the whole season back several weeks or scrap some of the earlier games and start later into the season, rights holders have already been in conversations with advertisers for more than a month, and are confident that all or most of the season will be played.
Of course, there is still the possibility that these plans will be derailed once again by Covid-19—already, multiple players and staffers from the MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, among other teams, have tested positive for the coronavirus. But both networks and buyers are remaining optimistic that the return of live sports is now just a month away.