Sports Wields Its Real-Time Magic

Despite growing technology options, fans still love watching games live

Early this year, Northwestern Mutual signed a sprawling NCAA corporate partnership deal with CBS Sports and Turner running through 2015. There are a lot of parts, going all the way to the local level at the NCAA’s 89 championships, though the centerpiece is the relationship with March Madness.

To use a metaphor from another sport, Northwestern is throwing deep, hoping to reach busy, upscale males. As CBS and Turner carry the tournament, Northwestern becomes the presenting sponsor of the First Four on truTV and attaches its brand to features in pre-game and halftime coverage. It also will run a lot of spots.

The popularity of sports TV keeps growing, and viewers want to watch in real time — ESPN says 99 percent of its programming is watched live — at a time when entertainment programming is increasingly playing in a DVR-VOD-Netflix world. For advertisers, it means sports can bring a greater chance of not only having their ads being seen, but also having attention paid, which is particularly the case with big events.

“Consumers want to engage more and more with sports, and the more content they can get the better,” says Chad Dern, Northwestern’s director of brand and advertising.

There’s a sense that sports also breeds a sense of community that dovetails with the social media boom — with passionate fans wanting to congregate or commiserate on Twitter or Facebook. After Tim Tebow, the celebrity Denver Broncos quarterback, tossed the winning pass against Pittsburgh in the NFL playoffs, there were about 9,400 tweets a second, the most relating to sports ever.

Also, live sports is increasingly being made available on digital and mobile platforms. ESPN has been a trailblazer there. Showing just how central online video has become, the Super Bowl was streamed live online for the first time in February, while NBC has promised every event in this summer’s London Olympics will be available live on some platform.

“Sports has really in many ways not only maintained its strength, it’s grown its importance because of technology, because of the nature of it being live, because of peoples’ continued fascination with and enjoyment of sports in general,” says Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN’s global customer marketing and sales. “I think it’s now clearly the most watched, consumed and talked-about genre there is.”

Northwestern Mutual will be involved with March Madness on Demand (MMOD), where games are made available online gratis, allowing millions to watch at work during the tournament’s first two days. Thanks to the growth in tablets and with viewers growing more comfortable watching long-form content on smartphones, MMOD traffic should only grow.

CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN each cut new deals with the NFL to keep carrying the league’s games into the 2020s. Comcast also spent liberally to secure the Olympics through 2020 for NBCUniversal and rebranded the Versus network, while securing rights to the NHL for it.

Sports provide the never-ending emergence of compelling stories — from Tebow in the NFL to the U.S. women’s soccer team’s surge in the summer of 2011. Many believe the proliferation in high-definition sets has led to ratings growth. The same goes with the boom in fantasy sports, particularly with the NFL.

And sports programming has a scarcity element that can increase popularity in the copycat TV business. When one network has a new take on reality programming, others are quick to follow. Consider: In scripted programming, how many comedies about young people in the big city have there been since Friends?

Nielsen says national TV sports advertising dollars rose 5 percent to $10.9 billion in a 12-month period ending September 2011. That came as the number of hours of live sports programming also rose by 5 percent to 42,500-plus. 

“The consistent ratings that sports offers — and they continue to grow — has helped maintain the growth of the ad dollars,” says Jon Diament, executive vice president of Turner Sports ad sales.
With part of March Madness moving to the Turner Network and the NCAA Bowl Championship Series to ESPN in 2011, cable’s share of sports ad dollars grew 37 percent. In 2016, the Final Four comes to cable for the first time when it moves to TBS.

But there is no ratings power in TV like the NFL. The Sunday national games on Fox and CBS were the first- and second-most-watched programs in 2011, while NBC’s Sunday Night Football led primetime. ESPN’s Monday Night Football draws the largest audiences on cable. The Super Bowl set a record as the most-watched show in U.S. history.

In entertainment, the upfront market necessitates big bets on what new and returning shows will thrive. Sports, though, can offer more predictability in terms of ratings and program quality.
“That audience is going to be there and perhaps even grow year after year,” says Jon Brancheau, vice president of Nissan Motor Company’s marketing. “Whereas when you consider the balance of primetime viewing with the [growth] in cable, there’s erosion.”

Nissan has a heavy and expanding involvement with college football. In January, it inked a deal through 2016 making it the “Premier Partner” of the Heisman Trophy, where it has had an association since 2005. Last fall, Nissan created a series of spots with 11 past Heisman winners that aired weekly during ESPN Saturday Night Football on ABC. Nissan also had previous winners participate in a campus tour, using some grassroots marketing to buttress its sponsorship.

Besides the regular-season games, Nissan also was a top-line sponsor of the Bowl Championship Series on ESPN, including the Alabama-LSU national title game. The automaker is also deeply involved with the NFL — including a primary sponsorship of NBC’s Sunday Night Football — but it can be harder for ads to stand out with so many auto marketers.

“There is a lot of clutter when you compare it to the BCS championship,” Brancheau says. Nissan’s BCS involvement allows it to gain auto-category exclusivity for a quarter in a game.
Back to the Super Bowl, for years advertisers looked for extra value by having their ads mentioned in media coverage. Now, there are instant comments on Twitter and replays on YouTube. Volkswagen’s renowned 2011 Super Bowl spot featuring a young “Darth Vader” was viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube over the ensuing year.

Super Bowl pricing may be set to command remarkable year-over-year prices. In 2012, reports had the average 30-second spot at $3.5 million, up about 17 percent from the year before. CBS may shoot for a much higher gain for 2013.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever really tested the exact boundaries of what the Super Bowl is worth,” says NBC’s sports group senior vice president Seth Winter on “I think technology and social media have taken that value and grown exponentially the value to the advertiser.”

Perhaps the most glaring evidence is the load of auto marketers in the game this year willing to deal with the logjam to try to stand out. Kia was in the big game for the third consecutive year with a spot featuring Motley Crue. As Kia looked to extend its impact, it released the ad before the game in theaters, and a 90-second extended version was on YouTube before kickoff.

Yet, perhaps nothing Kia has done in sports marketing has had the impact of a stunt at the 2011 slam-dunk contest during NBA All-Star weekend: Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin opted to jump over a Kia Optima for a spectacular dunk.

“We got lucky. Everything fell together just perfectly,” says Tim Chaney, director of marketing at Kia.

Not only did the feat garner a lot of media attention, but Kia had a spot running with Griffin’s dunk airing during NBA broadcasts within days. Chaney says it brought an even greater immediate spike in people looking up information online about Kia than the company’s 2011 Super Bowl spot.

“We like being involved in sports and particularly the NBA [because of] the passion that fans bring to it, and that passion carries over into how they view the sponsors of the sport,” Chaney says.

The NBA lost loads of regular-season games due to a labor dispute, but there does not appear to have been much fan backlash. A few reasons are storylines such as Griffin leading the
traditionally woeful Clippers to success and the Miami Heat’s pursuit of a championship with LeBron James.

Through the first 13 games on TNT this season, NBA household ratings were up 66 percent, while the Chicago-Los Angeles Lakers game on Christmas Day gave ESPN its third highest regular-season ratings ever.

Sports also brings communal viewership in bars and college dorms — one that is unlikely to be found with other programming anymore. That does bring a risk of viewers failing to hear an ad amid the hubbub.

But Northwestern, for one, tries to prepare for that with ads that offer compelling visuals and try for other bar-proof tactics. “You have to kind of develop the creative knowing the environment it’s going to run in,” Northwestern’s Dern says.

Over time, digital platforms will continue to impact traditional TV, but sports may weather any storm better than other genres — at least according to Yahoo executive vice president Ross Levinsohn.

“The last bastion of success for traditional TV will be sports,” Levinsohn said in January at an industry event. “There’s nothing like sitting on your couch and watching the game. Because the outcome is always in doubt in sports, you have to watch it live, and because prices are so high, I’m not sure digital is going to get there any time soon.”

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