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Home Team Sports’ Sloan: Sports TV advertising market in midst of broad redefinition

Craig Sloan, executive vice president of Home Team Sports. (Home Team Sports)

  • Sports TV advertising market in the US has seen strong demand as US leagues restart, mirroring pent-up demand from viewers
  • Leagues’ revised game schedules forcing a realignment of seasonal industry norms
  • Lack of in-person attendance due to Covid-19 cultivating the growth of virtual advertising and other new forms of inventory

The return of many of the American team sports leagues has been an early ratings bonanza, with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League all posting sizable audience gains upon their resumption of competition from delays imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Among those on the front lines of capitalizing on that ratings uplift is Craig Sloan, executive vice-president of Home Team Sports. The Fox Sports-owned sales unit markets advertising inventory for more than 40 US-based regional sports networks, as well as major standalone college sports media entities such as the Big Ten Network and Pac-12 Network. 

With the heavy pent-up demand for live sports, Home Team Sports in recent weeks has posted full or near-sellout totals across its large suite of MLB, NBA, and NHL television advertising inventory, representing historically high totals for what is ordinary a slower part of the annual sports calendar.

Sloan, with Home Team Sports for more than two decades, discusses numerous facets of the sports media advertising landscape with SportBusiness’ US editor Eric Fisher, including emerging trends such as shifts to future pro sports schedules, the emergence of virtual advertising, and increasing threats to college football this fall. 

How is demand in the ad market redefining itself, particularly given the compression of the schedules in many of the leagues that have resumed play?

First and foremost, our partners are very loyal and see the benefits of being involved with the local, home team passion. Luckily, the vast majority of partners that were intending to be with us before the suspension of play stayed with us through that entire suspension, way more than I even anticipated, to be honest with you, because of the duration of that suspension. With the shortened seasons, we have filled our inventory. That part sort of took care of itself. 

But there is a secondary component that is interesting as we look forward with the re-calendarization of the sports season for the upcoming year, and maybe beyond. The NBA and NHL will now start [their 2020-21 seasons] in December and then carry [regular seasons] into April, May, and June. Whereas in the past, when we were starting baseball, we were just ending our coverage of NBA and NHL, this is going to be different. There is going to be more overlap.

We are doing a heavy set of messaging in the marketplace about this re-calendarization, and the heavy preponderance of adults aged 18-49, intentful sports viewers in the second quarter that weren’t there in the past. So we’re getting brands to prepare for this re-calendarization and thinking it’s not just about the fourth quarter of the year where you can get significant gross ratings points opportunities. The second quarter is going to become a really strong quarter as well. 

To be clear on what’s happened so far, is the ad inventory that’s gone now basically make-goods from previous sales that weren’t fulfilled because of the pandemic, or were there new sales as well?

The vast majority of the inventory was taken out from prior, existing deals, people who have stayed with us. But there have been some new deals. If you look at what normally happens in the third quarter is that the regional sports networks usually only have baseball. And they’re generally the only real game in town when it comes to gross ratings points and weekday primetime entertainment. So [with the additional sports] we now have a very strong position in the third quarter.

We’re seeing a significant uptick [in activity] among companies that we sort of anticipated would be thriving [during the pandemic], companies like Amazon, delivery services. The [quick-serve restaurants] have surprisingly been holding up very well, especially those that have strong order pickup and delivery systems in place. They’re the type of companies that have come in and capitalized on whatever remaining inventory we have had. 

What do see as the further ramifications of this re-calendarization you mention, particularly with regard to spending categories? There was a traditional cadence to buying patterns before among key purchasers of sports ad inventory, such as movie studios and automakers. But how does all that change now?

It’s two main things. There are the categories that were spending a lot in Q4 because the NFL and college football were such drivers of sports impressions, that even if the brands’ respective businesses didn’t set up to be heavy in Q4, they were there anyway to brand-build and set the table for the future.

If you look at home improvement companies like Home Depot and Lowe’s for example, the vast majority of their traffic and purchases are happening during the spring and summertime. So it’s a matter now of getting the message across that there is now other strong, viable content for them to think about a bit differently and not feel forced into buying the fourth quarter, and that they can actually get a strong message out during their peak periods. 

The secondary component is capitalizing on those springtime endemics. That would be things like barbecue companies, the lawn and garden category, do-it-yourself areas where people are putting off projects until the weather gets better, real estate companies that have traditionally not used regional sports networks as much, and so forth. There is real opportunity in those areas, where we can convey that we’re going to be the largest reach vehicle in prime time entertainment in that time period.

You mentioned college football before and there is currently a lot of pressure on that space, and growing questions of whether there can even be a season this year. If we don’t have a season this year, what are the impacts to your operation?

We have some Atlantic Coast Conference content that runs through our regional sports networks, but we also have two main networks that drive our college market, the Big Ten Network and the Pac-12 Network. And in both of those cases, we’re using the information that is in front of us, and are looking at will be a staggered season or something that will be a bit delayed on the start, with conference matchups only.

What that has meant for us is that the marketplace is a little concerned about the viability of the season happening, as well as the fact that we’ve now taken out on these networks some non-conference matchups. Now the only thing left is 10 conference matchups and every game will matter, and we anticipate an increase in ratings because of it. If the season gets shifted, which seems to be the next possible step, we’ll act accordingly. But right now, our goal is squarely focused on a September start to the college football season.

We have seen a number of sports, particularly baseball, experiment with new forms of virtual advertising and other new ad positions taking advantage of no attending fans. What has that meant to your business?

It has been meaningful. It allows us to expand our inventory at a time when we have inventory pressures. We now have a set of sponsorship opportunities where brands can get some strong visual identification on screen, which in the past has translated into brand lift, and with some rather elegant executions inside of our MLB, NBA, and NHL coverage. We’re getting very positive feedback on it, and do have some inventory there to move. It’s important, and so much so that we see that being a part of the mix not only in a temporary scenario but also a future scenario where fans allowed back in stadiums and arenas across the country. 

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