Live Sports’ Imminent Return Should Electrify the Faltering TV Ad Sales Marketplace

NFL and other top leagues would generate billions in advertising revenue

Photos of different sports athletes from the NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB
The handful of competitions that have already aired prove just how eager advertisers and audiences are for any kind of live sports offering. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Key insights:

Nearly three months since every major professional sports league shut down due to Covid-19, the return of live sports to TV could finally be just around the corner.

With the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball laying the groundwork toward resuming play in July and August, and the National Football League releasing its full season schedule last month, buyers are “cautiously optimistic” about live sports becoming a reality once again, said Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, Omnicom’s sports media and marketing division.

“We’re starting to pinpoint some time frames. We’ve done a tremendous amount of scenario planning on what that would look like” and helping clients prepare, he said.

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, said Seth Winter, evp of sports sales, Fox Sports.

The handful of competitions that have already aired prove just how eager advertisers and audiences are for any kind of live sports offering.

On May 24, The Match: Champions for Charity golf tournament featuring Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning drew 5.8 million viewers across TNT, TBS, truTV and HLN, which WarnerMedia said was the most-watched golf telecast in cable TV history. WarnerMedia’s ad sales team sold out the tournament a month in advance in anticipation of such an outcome. And when Nascar races resumed May 17 on Fox, 6.3 million viewers made it the most-watched Nascar Cup race on any network (other than the Daytona 500) in more than two years.

CBS will cover the first PGA Tour event since the pandemic, the Charles Schwab Challenge, on June 13-14, which is “very well sold,” said Jo Ann Ross, president and chief advertising revenue officer, ViacomCBS domestic advertising sales. “There is a thirst and a hunger for live sports.”

These early results are promising, though “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,” said Carey. “Everything points to a consumer audience that’s just starving for competition.”

Sports ad sales teams are still holding off on most negotiations for the moment. Fox Sports has paused talks about MLB games until that league officially resumes play, given that “we have a lot of money in abeyance,” Winter said.

However, football is a different matter entirely. “As far as we’re proceeding, it’s full steam ahead,” said Mark Marshall, president, advertising sales and partnerships, NBCUniversal.

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 weeks of the season and start later into the season, rights holders are already in conversations with advertisers and are confident that all or most of the season will be played.

“We want to make sure that when we get a deal done, that the clients are happy with the way it’s come out and that we’re writing as much revenue as possible to the corporation,” said Ross, who is also engaged in talks for next year’s Super Bowl, which airs on CBS.

The bigger question mark right now is around college football, which will depend on when individual schools and states will reopen. Buyers say they are optimistic that the Power 5 conferences will return as well.

After slogging through three sports-free months, media companies and buyers are excited about the potential plethora of live sports in the third and fourth quarter. July is usually “sports-light” aside from baseball, said Carey, but “there are dollars that will shift along with the audience that’s available.”

With the possibility of the MLB, NBA and NHL seasons stretching long past their usual ends, “I don’t think we have an exact plan of how all of it slides in,” said Marshall, adding that the postponements could affect next season’s schedule as well. “We’re still working through that part, but first we need to get everyone up and playing this year.”

Billions at Stake

Until it is safe for the biggest sports leagues to resume play, the TV industry is missing out on billions in ad revenue. Here’s how much estimated national ad revenue the big four professional sports leagues brought in during their last full seasons, according to Kantar Media:

A sports graph
This story first appeared in the June 8, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.