After all, not even Iron Man, Hulk and Thor can match the combined sports powers that have converged this weekend: a perfect storm for sports fans. There’s the 2015 NFL Draft, which kicked off Thursday night and runs through today on ESPN, ESPN 2 and NFL Network. Later today brings the 141st Kentucky Derby (NBC and NBCSN). The rest of the weekend includes a Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees baseball matchup (MLB Network and ESPN), NBA first and second round playoff games (ESPN, TNT and ABC) NHL Stanley Cup second round playoff games (NBC and NBCSN) and World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play (NBC and Golf Channel).
And overshadowing them all is one of the biggest sports events of all time: tonight’s welterweight boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
The weekend “is going to be spectacular,” said SportsCenter’s Steve Levy, who is anchoring shows in both Chicago (home of this year’s NFL draft) and Las Vegas (site of the fight). “We’ve been planning for this month since about the time we left the Super Bowl.”
“It’s like nirvana for sports fans,” added Ed Mitzen, founder of Fingerpaint Marketing. “You’ve basically got Super Bowl weekend spread across 10 different venues.”
Not surprisingly, networks are betting on huge ratings. Last year, 15.3 million watched the Kentucky Derby, while 45.7 million tuned in for the 2014 NFL Draft coverage on NFL Network, ESPN and ESPN 2 over its three days, with 32 million watching Round 1 alone. Despite its hefty PPV fee ($89.95 for standard definition, $99.95 for high definition), Saturday night’s Mayweather-Pacquiao telecast—which starts at 9 p.m. ET, though the main event will likely take place around 11 p.m.— is expected to draw a record PPV audience of up to 4 million homes.
Networks and advertisers are scrambling to get their piece of Mayweather-Pacquiao, a fight six years in the making. The PPV telecast is co-produced and co-distributed by HBO Pay-Per-View and Showtime PPV. Tecate beer paid an estimated $5 million to sponsor the fight. ESPN is airing a red carpet (Presented by Cricket Wireless) at 8 p.m. On the social media front, Showtime said that Showtime Sports and HBO are working with Twitter and Facebook and Twitter to “make #MayPac become the biggest hashtag in sports history.”
“It’s nowhere near a Super Bowl in terms of the length of game, and yet we’re giving it complete Super Bowl treatment and then some,” said ESPN’s Levy. “This is an off-the-charts individual sporting event. I just hope it lives up to the hype.”
For its fight coverage alone, “I think we have four sets,” said Levy. “We don’t even have four sets at the Super Bowl, I don’t think! So that gives you an idea of where we stand.” After all, nothing less than the future of boxing is at at stake. “I do think that that’s why certainly we are putting so much effort into our coverage,” said Levy. “I think that’s why this fight came together in the first place, to sort of resurrect the sport.”
Had the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight not been scheduled for today, the NFL Draft would have likely dominated this sports weekend. Levy predicted Thursday night’s SportsCenter “will probably be the second-highest rated SportsCenter of the year.” “That’s three and a half hours after the first couple of picks are already made! But that’s the appetite of the NFL fan.”
While the draft is for die-hard NFL fans, a less rabid but equally engaged audience will flock to NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage. NBC Sports Group will air 15.5 live hours of Derby coverage this weekend (including 19 races), which began Wednesday on NBCSN and moves to NBC at 4 p.m. ET today.
“This event is so much more than just a horse race, and you don’t have to be a sports fan to know of Churchill Downs and the images it conjures up,” said NBC Sports Group coordinating producer Rob Hyland. “The Kentucky Derby is the ultimate bucket list sporting event.”
NBC’s Derby coverage will include commentary from Bob Costas and 14 others, including Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski, who return for the second year as Derby fashion and lifestyle experts. “This event is just so much more than” just the race, said Tara Lapinski. “You have the hats and the fashion and the mint juleps, and it’s just such a big, fun, social event.”
NBC will be giving ESPN a run for its money today, with a Washington Capitals-New York Rangers NHL playoff game at 12:30 p.m., its Derby telecast at 4 and World Golf Championship Cadillac Match Play coverage at 7:30.
For all networks, coordinating coverage of all this weekend’s major sports events “has been a massive logistical challenge,” said ESPN’s Rob King, svp, SportsCenter and news.
The unprecedented sports weekend has also provided an enormous marketing challenge for brands looking to make a splash. “You can’t play everywhere, because it’s impossible,” said Mitzen. “You can’t make a dent in all of these things, so you have to pick your spots and where you have relevancy and where you feel like you can get noticed.”
And despite all of the sponsorships dominating these major sports events, the weekend’s biggest marketing winner could end up being another brand entirely. “Social is going to drive an enormous piece of this. I think that a lot of the clever creativity is going to be born out of an unexpected event during the weekend,” said Mitzen, referring to Oreo’s genius “dunk in the dark” tweet prompted by 2013’s Super Bowl blackout. “If something dramatic happens, being able to turn that on a dime and socially make hay with it could really help somebody separate themselves.”
(This story, reported by Jason Lynch, first appeared in Adweek / Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall)