With Sports Back On TV, Should Advertisers Rejoice?

It’s well-known that live sports are one of the last strong audience pillars of linear TV. All broadcasters have felt the loss of ad revenues as a result of the absence of sports.  Thank God for the election dollars (although, as a viewer, I am already sick and tired of all the political attack ads).

Now live sports are coming back to TV. That means those advertisers traditionally associated with sports are going to be back too, right?  

I believe the better question is “Should they be back?”

Over the last few weeks, we have seen how some sports have staged themselves in the current COVID environment. 

There are no crowds. The spontaneous celebrations and on-and-off-pitch shenanigans have been reduced to awkward, facemask-covered interactions. 

Some sports have added fake audience sounds to their televised feeds. Others have created colorful seat coverings (or robot audiences) to create a less dreary-looking stadium environment. 



On-air coverage has kind of looked the same, but is also very much not the same. Especially since all the pundits cannot help themselves from stating the obvious, pointing out ad nauseam that there are no crowds and that the celebrations and other shenanigans are clearly not how they used to be.

Add to that the uncertainty about anything going ahead as planned. Despite bubbles and isolation, team members, staff members and even reporters have been infected and subsequently quarantined. Games are postponed or cancelled. International event values are further diminished because athletes from other countries think the risk of traveling to, and participating in, events in our country is too high (Can you say “US Open Tennis”?).

So what is a traditional sports advertiser to do?

Is there value in advertising around dressed-down, less than ideal live TV sports content? Does it make sense to advertise beer around sports when the only place where you can drink is at home? Does it make sense to advertise cars when it looks like work from home is here to stay for at least another six months? 

Other categories might still “work” in a sports environment, like takeout and delivery of (fast) food. And if you are Nike (and Wieden+Kennedy), you should be revered for having your fingers on the pulse and showing all other advertisers how it is done.

But my question is not so much about whether or not an ad makes sense in the sports category. I also do not question the current live TV ratings generated by sports-starved TV viewers. My question is: Is the value transfer of a dressed-down, therefore less attractive, uncertain-if-it-will-be-on sports environment worth the advertisers’ budget? 

My assessment is that the “new-normal” sports environment value has been significantly devalued for the reasons outlined above.  I would expect significantly lower costs to advertise or sponsor in and around live sports TV, and that each buy, like airline tickets, should come with a lot of flexibility to rebook or refund. 

If there’s one thing sports advertising is teaching us, it’s that we need to continue to be nimble on all sides of the advertising ecosystem. We are living in a VUCA* world, and that will likely continue to apply to most of the 2020-2021 sports season as well.

*volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

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