Turner Sports Sells Out Regular Season NBA Ad Inventory Ahead of Restart

Network eyes lucrative playoffs amid first-ever September games

nba players
The Lakers and Clippers will face off during TNT's doubleheader Thursday as the NBA season finally resumes. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Key insights:

The National Basketball Association was the first U.S. sports league to pause its season due to Covid-19, suspending games on March 11. Four-and-a-half months later, the NBA is finally ready to resume play, and Turner Sports has already sold out of its regular season ad inventory. Now, it’s eyeing a lucrative revenue haul for the NBA playoffs, which will stretch into October.

None of Turner Sports’ NBA on TNT advertisers canceled their earlier media buys, prior to the season’s suspension, according to Jon Diament, Turner Sports evp and chief revenue officer. Additionally, Turner Sports required all advertisers for Thursday’s highly anticipated opening night TNT doubleheader—the Utah Jazz play the New Orleans Pelicans at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the L.A. Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers at 9 p.m.—to purchase inventory through the entire regular season, which led to the regular season sellout.

Under the revised NBA schedule, 22 teams will return beginning Thursday, and will play eight games apiece, before the start of playoffs in mid-August. All games will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Fla., a “bubble” approach that the league hopes will keep Covid-19 at bay.

“Only the best teams will be participating. Every game is going to matter. It’s almost like a mini-playoffs,” said Diament of the upcoming restart.

The company, which also operates NBA TV,  has collaborated with the league and with sponsors Microsoft and Michelob Ultra to create immersive fan experiences, from never-before-seen perspectives on the court to a “live” crowd in the stadium using videoconferencing tools.

Turner Sports and its advertisers have big hopes for tomorrow’s doubleheader kickoff, given the huge ratings for the return of other live sports over the past two months. The MLB’s opening day game on July 23, featuring the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals, drew 4 million viewers, making it the most-watched regular season game on any network since 2011.

While no regular season NBA inventory remains available, “the playoff market is not totally firmed up yet,” said Diament, who is eyeing a unique opportunity for the company, with games being played in September for the first time ever—and the NBA Finals stretching into the fourth quarter.

Last season, the NBA generated an estimated $528.2 million in national ad revenue during the regular season, and $877.5 million during the playoffs, according to Kantar Media.

Turner splits the NBA package with Disney, which airs its games on ESPN and ABC. Disney declined to make any execs available to discuss its own NBA ad sales strategies.

The NBA demographic is “quite diverse, quite young and a very light viewer tier for many categories and advertisers. It’s really tough to reach this demo,” Diament said.

As a result, “our market is super-strong right now,” he added. While half of Turner Sports’ NBA ad dollars come from multiyear deals with its biggest league sponsors, the company also expects to benefit from a “last-minute scatter market based on exactly what programming is going to be” as a result of Covid-19.

As NBA play extends into September, Diament expects to attract new brands that traditionally buy inventory in other fall sports, as well as back-to-school advertisers, especially in retail, a previously untapped opportunity for the league.

Turner Sports is also looking to benefit from this year’s staggered upfront marketplace, in which several brands will be negotiating on a calendar year upfront instead of the typical broadcast upfront. That opens up more scatter inventory in the fall that the NBA is prepared to capitalize on.

Plus, there’s the lingering concern that Covid-19 could once again lead to the suspension of one or several sports leagues, which could also benefit the NBA’s bubble approach.

“While we all pray for the ecosystem of sports to be healthy,” Diament pointed out that there’s a “good chance” that Covid-19 will continue to upend the leagues. “The NBA, with their bubble strategy, at this point has an advantage. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think marketers are placing bets on the NBA.”

If the NFL or college football games are canceled or postponed this fall, “there will be billions of dollars up for grabs in the fourth quarter, because marketers are going to have to get their GRPs,” said Diament. The NBA could benefit, but only somewhat: “We can’t accommodate all of that.”

As part of this unique year, Diament is overseeing the NBA’s regular season return while simultaneously engaging in upfront talks regarding the next season, which is tentatively scheduled to begin at the end of the year. The league is working alongside WarnerMedia’s portfolio sales teams to offer cross-platform opportunities and flexibility to advertisers, if, for example, the next season ends up being pushed to early 2021.

In addition to the NBA’s return, Turner Sports is also broadcasting Major League Baseball games, though its package is smaller than that of Fox Sports.

Last week, Fox Sports said it has sold out more than 90% of its MLB regular season ad inventory. Diament said Turner’s regular season demand is “similar” to Fox’s, while the postseason market “has not been established yet.”

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.