The World Series and NFL Fuel a Fall Advertising Windfall for Fox Sports

Next up: the Super Bowl

Saying "be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it" is usually a warning, but it was more like a mantra for the Fox Sports ad sales team this year, after a Chicago Cubs-Cleveland Indians World Series that offered everything they could ever have dreamed of, and more.

"It really is all about the Cubs, and it's all about creating history with television, something that's never been done for them," said Neil Mulcahy, evp of sports sales for Fox. "So you had just a dream matchup. And then you're always hoping for seven games, because the more games, the more commercials we can sell. You're also hoping for extra innings, so I think what you got this year was the perfect storm of everything happening." 

That perfect storm resulted in the most-watched World Series game in 25 years on Wednesday, as 40 million people tuned in to see the Cubs win the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Game 7 was also the most-watched telecast since Super Bowl 50, beating the Oscars and every night of NBC's Rio Olympics coverage and propelling Fox into first place among broadcast networks in the 18-49 demo (at least for the moment).

The seven-game World Series averaged 23.4 million viewers, the highest since 2004's matchup between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, which averaged 25.4 million viewers over four games.

As the series stretched to Game 6 and then Game 7 this week, "everybody on the media side wanted to be in there, because it was being part of history," said Mulcahy. "It's an experience you wait for."

"There was something special about this matchup—both of these teams not having won a World Series championship in so long," said Mark Evans, svp of sports sales. "But the Cubs really did drive the casual sports fan to the television for this, and this is what you need for the rating we achieved and having interest outside of your endemic, tried-and-true baseball advertisers. You had people that were interested in an event because it was that seminal moment."

Those brands included certified financial planners, Target and Mars candy. "It was exciting to see the broader community get so excited about it," Evans said. "And in general right now, it's not a gangbuster marketplace. So to see so much new money show up for Game 6 and 7, it really spoke to the size and the power of the event."

Meanwhile, the traditional sports clients stepped up their game. Nike and Anheuser-Busch each created two different versions of commercials ready to go after Game 7, depending on which team won.

Nike aired a salute to the Cubs in the first ad slot after the final out, while Budweiser reaired a classic commercial from the 1980s featuring legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray (Anheuser-Busch's alternate ad was Cleveland-centric and did not involve Caray).

Thanks to the brand and audience interest, Fox Sports took in more than $500,000 per spot for Game 7, according to sources. And with the series going the full seven games, not to mention an extra inning in Game 7, additional inventory caused by multiple pitching changes (which required commercial breaks), and a lack of makegoods given that the game overdelivered on all guarantees, Fox will significantly top the ad revenue for last year's World Series, which went just five games and took in $240 million, according to Kantar Media. "Certainly coming out of baseball, we're pretty happy with where our budget sits," said Mulcahy.

While Fox won't have the prospect of another team that breaks its 108-year World Series drought next season, Mulcahy says there is still plenty to look forward to next season. "When you look at the construct of the Cubs, they're built for a long run here," said Evans. Added Mulcahy, "You get the Yankees or Red Sox in there against the Cubs, you're certainly going to have some incredible numbers and attention."

Football is looking Super

In addition to its World Series windfall, Fox Sports is also raking in more money than ever for its NFL package. While the Sunday, Monday and Thursday prime-time packages have seen double-digit ratings declines this season, Fox's package of NFC Sunday afternoon games "is probably only down 2 percent," said Mulcahy. "The way our package is laid out, you're never going to have the falloff that the prime-time games do, because we have nine of the top 10 markets in the U.S. That's the NFC markets. We have eight games a week; in those games, you have 16 home markets that are watching and rooting for their favorite team. This is why we always wanted the NFC package."

And advertisers are as eager to be on board as ever. According to Standard Media Index data, the average 30-second spot for Fox NFL games in September was up 11 percent over last September. "Year to year, and you have to take $35 million to $40 million of DraftKings that we did not write this year, but including that, our dollars are over where we were last year," said Mulcahy. "People are spending money in the NFL. And starting this week, we're going to totally turn our attention there. November last year was the biggest month we've ever had in football sales, so we're expecting that."

And Super Bowl LI, which will air on Fox, is just three months away. "We know everybody who's going to be there. The biggest problem this year we're having is deciding how long they want their commercials to be," said Mulcahy.

Explained Evans, "The format really becomes the game within the game. It's the only broadcast where people are buying so position specific. Literally every single spot is planned out so specifically, so when somebody does buy a 60[-second spot] a month ago, and they get their creative and they love it so much that they want to make it a 90, it's not always that easy to accommodate, because the positions before or after it might have been sold."

Between the NFL and World Series success, the Fox Sports ad sales team hasn't lost a step, despite the sudden departure in September of Fox Networks Group ad sales chief Toby Byrne, whose position still hasn't been filled. The sports group, which came together a year and a half before the rest of the portfolio merged in 2014, is "like a machine," said Mulcahy, who called Byrne "like a brother to me. It was terrible when he left, and when things change like that, it affects us emotionally, but it doesn't really affect the job we do."

While Mulcahy and his team will focus on the rest of the NFL season and the Super Bowl, he's already looking ahead, and not just to the prospect of another Cubs World Series. Fox signed a deal earlier this year for rights to Big Ten football and basketball games next season and has the Men's World Cup on tap in 2018. "So we have some great days ahead of us," said Mulcahy.