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MLB looks to get aggressive with virtual advertising

Virtual signage appearing in the seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium during a recent exhibition game. (YES Network)

  • Prior experiments to be greatly expanded with large set of new ad positions
  • Individual teams and regional sports networks have much more access to virtual inventory this season
  • Many virtual ad deployments will be used to help fulfill sponsor contracts from prior to the pandemic

On a literal level, the stands at Major League Baseball parks are empty for this week’s start of the amended 2020 season. But in virtual sense, they could be as full as ever, and perhaps even more so.

The league, the 30 clubs, and their set of national and regional media partners in this unprecedented and abbreviated, 60-game season are initiating a program in which they are using the heavy revenue loss from losing nearly two-thirds of a normal season and the empty ballparks to insert a wide array of virtual advertising into game broadcasts.

Technologically and conceptually, virtual advertising is hardly new. MLB, the teams, and their TV network partners for years had already used a green screen in the prime space behind home plate, particularly for games where there were shared broadcast rights and normal rotational signage wasn’t feasible. Other prime spots such as the center field batter’s eye have been mined in recent years in national broadcasts during key jewel events such as the World Series. 

And numerous other sports entities including Italy’s Serie A and Major League Soccer back in the United States have also pursued various forms of virtual advertising.

But not only does MLB, even amid their shortened 2020 campaign, have more games than any other major sports property, but they will be particularly aggressive in finding non-traditional locations for the new advertising. As this season unfolds, ads will be found in stands directly behind home plate, on and behind the pitcher’s mound, along both the first and third base lines in foul territory on the field as well as in the stands, and in the center field batter’s eye area. 

The new virtual ads, being developed with the aid of various firms including New York-based virtual advertising and product placement firm Brand Brigade, also will not require a green screen to deploy in the various sections of the ballparks. They also add to the team-based efforts to fill out empty ballparks with cardboard cutouts bearing the pictures of individual fans and physical tarps with sponsor logos installed in many stadiums.

“The idea is that we had open space otherwise sitting empty [during games] and that filling it…would be helpful to our broadcast partners,” says Chris Marinak, MLB executive vice-president of strategy, technology, and innovation. “This is really about helping out our partners and their sponsors in what is a very strange year.”

MLB and individual TV networks have not disclosed the aggregate revenue potential from baseball’s new virtual advertising, and that number will depend significantly on how aggressive teams ultimately are selling the new inventory over the next two months.

But the technology in particular will be a key tool toward satisfying prior sponsor and advertiser commitments for the 2020 season that otherwise couldn’t be fulfilled due to the season delay and reduced number of games created by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’re collectively trying to make up for the lost brand exposure because of the shortened season,” says Ryan Zander, MLB vice-president of broadcast products and services. “The empty space [in seating sections], a lot of empty real estate normally occupied by fans, gives us the opportunity to create some new inventory for our partners. The goal is to make this signage look as authentic as possible and not be disruptive to the viewer.”

An example of virtual batter’s eye advertising at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas, during last year’s World Series. Such deployments will be much more common in baseball, on both a national and regional level, during the 2020 season. (Fox Sports)

Regionals heavily in the mix

In a normal year, technology such as the virtual advertising would heavily or entirely be the domain of national broadcasters and the larger resources and wider distribution they have. Of course, this is no normal year. And as a result, individual clubs and regional sports networks will have the same level of access to these assets as the league itself and national media partners ESPN, Turner Sports, and Fox Sports, with wide latitude to sell inventory on many different levels of frequency such as full games, full innings, half innings, or more specific, discrete moments.

The YES Network in the New York area, for example, has already begun experimenting with virtual advertising, and plans to actively deploy more executions in collaboration with the RSN’s majority owner, the New York Yankees. YES Network’s broadcasts with virtual signs behind home plate have also included a virtual frame in order to have that signage not appear as if it is floating in space.

“This is an experiment, so we don’t know exactly where it will go. But certainly if it’s allowed to continue [beyond 2020], the economy gets better, and people get used to seeing it, I think there’s a lot of potential there,” says Howard Levinson, YES Network senior vice-president of ad sales. “Right now, we’re putting it in as part of our [larger sales] packages. But I could definitely see this being sold on its own.”

To that end, MLB is working with New York-based agency Scout Sports and Entertainment to help value the assets and build out a rate card.

“It’s going to run the gamut [in terms of deployment]. No two of the 30 MLB teams are doing exactly the same thing,” says Scott Savran, senior manager of property strategy and analytics for Scout 360, the agency’s sponsorship unit. “And all ballparks themselves are different, which is different than a [National Basketball Association] or [National Hockey League] setup, where you’re seeing a lot of consistent signage. 

“But some MLB teams will have what I would call ‘logo soup’, while others will be very strategic and very conservative in the branding that they’re adding,” Savran says.

Despite the enlarged approach to deploying virtual advertising, the MLB situation remains anything but a free-for-all. Much like established analog and digital forms of sponsorship, specific rules governing the use of the new virtual spots include protecting category exclusivity for existing sponsors and not accepting any political messaging for that inventory. 

And while on a broad level the gaming category has become a wider sales opportunity for RSNs such as YES, there also will not be virtual ads for sportsbooks within ballparks this year.

“This can’t be a guerrilla marketing thing,” Levinson says. “We have to honor all the existing deals.”

Virtual ads during regional broadcasts, meanwhile, will also be driven heavily by home teams, and that inventory will be subordinate to physical tarps that clubs may opt to install.

“What we’ve done this season is qualified a bunch of technologies and devised a plan and framework to make this technology available for all clubs who want to take advantage of the program,” Zander says.

The new virtual ad inventory will also co-exist with similar efforts by Fox Sports, and over time likely some RSNs, to also have virtual fans in ballparks. And because of the more unusual planned locations of some of the virtual ads, such as near outfield corners in ballparks, the inventory will require regional and national broadcasters to expand beyond their normal directorial workflow and have some less traditional camera shots during games, such as following the arc of a foul ball entirely into the stands.

“A lot of these new assets are going to be in locations that typically are not captured in historical broadcast production,” Savran says. “A lot of the teams will need to communicate with the RSNs how to capture that and drive value from those various locations. And that value itself will be determined in part by how they adjust production from years past.”

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