Despite a laggard economy and tepid ratings for the sport in 2009, advertisers are returning to Major League Baseball telecasts for the coming season, which begins this week, and baseball’s TV rights holders are close to selling out commercial time on their first few months of games, both at the national and local levels.
Buoyed by a doubling in automotive ad dollars and a 75 percent hike in financial advertising compared to this time last season for its Saturday afternoon games and two prime-time contests, Fox is virtually sold out for April and May. Turner has taken in 15 percent to 20 percent more ad dollars than it did last year for its Sunday afternoon MLB games.
ESPN, which televises the most games nationally, is also pacing ahead of last year. Its telecast of the Home Run Derby the night before the All-Star Game is almost sold out. And MLB Network, in its second year, added 30 new advertisers this season to the 200 clients from its first year in business. MLB Net has taken in “three to four times more ad dollars” than ’09 at this point, said Bill Morningstar, evp of ad sales.
While more ad dollars are rolling in, the national networks sales execs said they’re also getting price increases between 5–7 percent.
Advertiser interest extends beyond the national telecasts. Ray Warren, executive vp and chief revenue officer of Comcast SportsNet, who oversees ad sales for several regional sports networks, said ad revenue is tracking 75 percent ahead of last year. And ad revenue is about 50 percent higher than last season at Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network (YES), per a network rep, with six clients renewing for this season in early November, a first for the network.
National ratings are unlikely to be a driver of interest. Last season saw Fox’s ratings sink 10 percent for its Saturday afternoon games and ESPN down 8 percent for the 66 games it telecast on Sundays and weekday nights. Only Turner’s TBS enjoyed regular season gains last year (up 27 percent), but off a much lower viewer base. The regional sports nets, as always, had their viewership more tied into how their local teams performed.
So what is driving the advertisers? Clients increasingly see live sports as family friendly, male-heavy and relatively DVR-proof. It helps that baseball, because of its long season and numerous telecasts both nationally and regionally, is cheaper than prime-time entertainment fare. “Live sports have not suffered declines in ratings as those seen in prime time,” said Kevin Collins, senior vp of national broadcast at Initiative.
Moreover, many advertisers, which held back ’09 upfront dollars from prime time and were conservative in first-quarter expenditures, find themselves with extra dollars to spend in the second half.
MLB has helped tighten inventory for its TV rights holders by encouraging all of its sponsors to advertise. The league has also added two new sponsors, Firestone and Scotts lawn care products, which are advertising on all networks carrying baseball, further tightening avails.
But advertisers who sat out or cut back last year are once again rounding the bases. Mark Evans, Fox vp sports sales, said key financial advertisers like E*Trade, Edward Jones and Chase have returned in a big way, and “a lot of advertisers are buying the All-Star Game in July earlier so there are a lot less avails than there were at this time last year.”
Jon Diament, evp, Turner Sports ad sales/marketing, said in addition to auto and insurance money, TBS’ Sunday MLB telecasts are thick with movie, wireless, travel and fast-food advertisers.