Even without holding its traditional upfront event today, Fox Corp is doing everything it can to lay the groundwork for a healthy upfront marketplace.
This morning, the Fox network unveiled a largely pandemic-proof fall schedule, with all series but one having already been filmed. And on Friday, Fox Sports held another round of virtual town halls with agencies to help them prepare for the imminent and long-awaited return of live sports—and, it hopes, to jumpstart talks about the upcoming NFL season on the heels of last Thursday’s football schedule release.
The format of last Friday’s five agency meetings (one more is planned this week) was similar to Fox Sports’ virtual town halls a month ago, during which execs—including CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks, evp of sports sales Seth Winter and evp and head of strategy and analytics Michael Mulvihill—talked about the sports marketplace, discussed the conversations they’ve been having with the leagues and shared various scenarios for when sports could return.
But this time around, “we had a lot more information,” said Winter, including that new NFL schedule, a set date for the return of the Nascar season (races will resume Sunday, and will air on Fox and FS1) and a better sense of when other leagues will resume play, including baseball, which Winter said will likely start up by July.
While Winter said the meetings were “not a pure blatant sales call,” he does hope they will serve to kick off substantive talks with clients about the new NFL season beyond the “few very concrete” talks already happening.
Especially given how much Fox has to look forward on its slate of games this season: Its first America’s Game of the Week matchup on Sunday, Sept. 13, will feature Tom Brady and his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, facing off against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Brady will also appear in Fox’s first Thursday Night Football game on Oct. 8, as the Buccaneers take on the Chicago Bears.
Fox and its rivals are hoping that the NFL will reignite an ad sales marketplace that has been reeling ever since live sports were canceled due to Covid-19 in March.
As Adweek reported earlier this month, while the scatter market has slowly begun to pick up as the pandemic enters its third calendar month, some usual scatter players are remaining on the sidelines for now.
“A lot of people are waiting for live sports to begin, setting the stage for a more substantive, longer term conversation,” Winter said, “because that’s a very symbolic and real indicator of the move forward” to whatever the new normal will be, post-pandemic.
Yet even with an NFL schedule, nothing will be concrete until it is actually safe for games to resume. If live sports are indeed up and running in the third and fourth quarter, “everybody’s going to be going after those sports GRPs,” including categories that are still unsure of their long-term plans, one TV ad sales exec recently told Adweek. “But if there’s no live sports, how are we going to fill up those GRPs?”
Given that uncertainty, Fox Sports will be “flexible” in its conversations with clients and will “construct a model around which both sides can be comfortable, should things change from what we currently know today,” Winter said. “I preface every conversation by saying, ‘Look, we can only operate on the information we have today.’ We understand the uncertainty… but we have to have hope.”
Fox is also optimistic about the NFL returning on time in September because “we’re going to have four months of additional learnings around how other leagues both globally and domestically have opened up their sports,” said Winter. “So we do have the benefit of time.”
Sports advertisers, start your engines
While the NFL season is far from a certainty yet, Nascar races are officially set to resume Sunday. And Fox Sports is seeing “extraordinary” advertiser interest in those races, beyond Nascar’s usual categories, Winter said. “It just shows an enormous appetite for live sports.”
Winter pointed to the better-than-expected ratings for the NFL Draft and ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary, due to “the dearth of sports programming,” a trend he sees continuing with those Nascar telecasts.
Sports-starved advertisers have also flocked to The Match: Champions for Charity, the celebrity golf fundraiser that will air May 24 on WarnerMedia cable networks TNT, TBS, truTV and HLN. That sold-out event also features a broader-than-usual array of sponsors for a golf tournament, reflecting that “we think we’re going to reach a lot of casual sports fans, not just hardcore golf fans,” Jon Diament, Turner Sports evp and chief revenue officer, told Adweek.
Unlike its in-progress NFL discussions with clients, Fox Sports has paused talks about Major League Baseball games until that league officially resumes play, given that “we have a lot of money in abeyance,” Winter said. “But if Nascar is the harbinger of what baseball might be, we feel we’ll be in a very good situation.”