Live TV sports in 2020 has been deeply impacted by the pandemic with widespread delays, cancellations and big changes for fans at home and in arenas and stadiums. Through all this, live sports remains resilient as fans continue to be engaged. For advertisers, sports continues to be among the most valuable places on television. That said, there are many challenges as well as opportunities. One thing is certain, things will change in 2021.
While the impact of the virus next year is unknown, planning is well underway by the leagues, TV networks and media buyers.
Beet.TV and VAB are exploring live sports in 2021 in a 15-part series of video interviews with senior network executives, TV media buyers, analysts and league officials. The speaker line-up will include industry leaders from Fox, Horizon, ESPN, Starcomm, Nielsen Sports and many more.
Topics to be explored:
- How has the fan relationship to sports been impacted by the absence of play? Is there pent-up enthusiasm? How have fan attitudes towards sports changed?
- How have the sports leagues and athletes fared through the pandemic? How do you see their response to COVID-19 and reputation changed, if it has?
- What sorts of creative programming were initiated by the networks during the pandemic and how some of these initiatives may be here to stay?
- How has advertising investment in live changes around spots, sponsorships, and integrated marketing deals? What do marketers want from their investment?
- Distribution has changed with consumption quickly growing via OTT devices and mobile. What are the implications for the future of sports and for advertisers in a multi-screen world?
- What are the ad technologies that are most promising around audience targeting and addressability?
- How will the networks and leagues find and retain younger viewers to live sports?
Now the line-up!
Live Sports are Poised for Big Comeback in 2021
Jason Wiese, SVP Director of Integrated Strategic Insights, VABEpisode Summary
The Super Bowl this year will be especially significant as the capstone of the National Football League’s herculean effort provide live sports entertainment amid a global pandemic that threatened to upset its season. The health crisis has been enormously disruptive, but has shown the power of live sports to entertain millions of fans while helping marketers reach highly engaged audiences.
“There’s pent-up enthusiasm going into 2021, and for when sports will finally return to a normal schedule,” Jason Wiese, senior vice president and director of strategic insights at VAB, said in this interview with Beet.TV. “There’s a lot of encouragement with the vaccine coming, and getting back on track for full seasons”
Last month’s emergency approval of several vaccines for COVID-19 has led to cautious optimism that 2021 will mark a major turning point in finally curbing the pandemic. There are still plenty of uncertainties about how quickly millions of people will be inoculated, but ideally, the number of new cases will decline and help to bring sports fans back to stadiums by midyear.
Restoring a more normal schedule for sports will help to lift viewership and give advertisers a way to reach highly engaged audiences at scale, Wiese said.
“Sports is a core passion for most fans — 65% of avid sports fans say they feel ‘personally connected’ to their favorite team,” he said, citing a VAB consumer study. “Some of their fondest memories in their lives are with sports. Some have even cried during sporting events.”
Sports appeal to younger demographic groups that are more ethnically diverse than prior generations, and 40% of sports viewers are women, according to VAB’s study. Considering that women make most of the purchase decisions in U.S. households, sports programming can be a way to reach millions of key consumers.
“Sports have the ability to drive consumers right through the purchase funnel,” Wiese said. “Sports fans are more likely to be talking about ads that they see with their friends and their families. They’re more likely to be going on websites from ads that they see on sports to get more information — and ultimately, they’re more likely to buy the product that they see advertised.”
Lessons of 2020’s Upheaval
Sports leagues went through several stages of disruption last year, providing more insights into how fans consume video content., Wiese said.
After the NCAA canceled the Men’s Basketball Tournament, and professional sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball suspended play, fans clamored for sports-related programming.
The NFL and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) reformatted their yearly drafts of college players as virtual events — and saw record viewership. ESPN saw the highest ratings for a documentary when it aired “The Last Dance,” a 10-part series about the effort by NBA legend Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to win their sixth championship in eight seasons.
As leagues resumed play in summer, there was a surge in enthusiasm and higher TV viewership, though the schedule started to get crowded by the second half of the year. Amid scheduling changes, particularly for college football, fans were uncertain about game times.
“Some sports fans are creatures of habit,” Wiese said. “They expect to see their sports run at certain times.”
The crowded schedule led to some cannibalization of audiences, but Wiese said the shift was an anomaly. About three quarters (72%) of sports fans prefer to watch games on TV, where they can experience “front-row” action from the comforts of home.
“The fundamentals of sports haven’t changed,” he said. “Sports provides a sense of connection, camaraderie, community and commitment to a team.”
Fan Attendance Supports TV Viewership of Live Sports
Gibbs Haljun, Total Investment Lead, MindshareEpisode Summary
As disruptive as the pandemic has been for live sports, the possibility of ending the health crisis with vaccines has lifted hopes that 2021 will help to fill stadium seats and restore a less crowded calendar of televised sports. Higher fan attendance helps to support engagement with players and teams, while traditional schedules spread spots programming more evenly throughout the year.
“The pandemic created obviously a challenge because it shut down all content production. That included live sports,” Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead of GroupM’s Mindshare, said in this interview with Beet.TV. “With no sports, there was pent-up demand for it when it actually came back.”
The total cumulative audience of televised was higher than in the past, but sports leagues had to compete more directly for viewers. The National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and NASCAR were among the sports organizations to resume operations. Their efforts to complete their seasons later in the fall made them more competitive with the National Football League and college football.
“You had some fatigue from fans when you had all sports on, all the time,” Haljun said. “There are only so many hours in the day that people can consume sports content, and continue to be interested.”
The constraints pushed marketers to be more creative in optimizing their media plans.
“When you look at integrated partnerships, the biggest challenge is time. The pandemic created the opportunity to pivot and compress the timeline,” Haljun said. “It’s not about saying, ‘no.’ It’s about saying, ‘yes, and…’ The reality is not every network, every client will be a great fit, but there are so many that are, that there’s always a solution.”
Looking for One-to-One at Scale
Reaching mass audiences amid a more fragmented media landscape is challenging, but there is a possibility for more focused targeting as people consumer media on a wider variety of devices, including smartphones and connected TVs.
“The multiscreen opportunity is great. It allows us to be more precise…and do things that sports hasn’t been able to do in the past couple of years,” Haljun said. “The challenge for all of us is to get something at scale.”
Addressable advertising, which lets marketers reach different households with different ads during the same show on linear TV, is still in the nascent stage for national broadcasters.
“I certainly don’t see a national addressable platform at the moment on Sunday Night NFL. It doesn’t mean it won’t come down in the future, but it’s not something that’s fully actionable at this point,” Haljun said. “We need to build an interface and a tool that allows us to really split delivery.”
Another key challenge for sports is its aging demographic, as younger viewers show less willingness to spend several hours watching a game.
“We need to figure out how to adapt different platforms that they’re utilizing, whether it’s TikTok or Snapchat, or even Twitter, for that matter,” Haljun said. “Youth want to interact with their friends at the same time that they’re viewing. The pandemic has created some challenges with that as well.”
Live are Best Investments for Advertisers
Seth Winter, EVP, Sports Sales, FOX SportsEpisode Summary
This year promises to bring a return to traditional seasonal play for sports leagues that had scrambled to revamp operations because of the pandemic. The National Football League and National Basketball Association were among the sports leagues that implemented procedures to protect players, coaches and support staff from infection.
Fox Sports is among the broadcasters that faced adversity in providing live sports programming to fans, and giving advertisers a way to reach those audiences.
“We were happy for the most part about how the leagues and everyone managed their schedules,” Seth Winter, executive vice president of sports sales at Fox Sports, said in this interview with Beet.TV. “Each of the sports leagues has done a wonderful job of dealing with the day-to-day health issues with which they’ve all been confronted.”
He commended the National Football League, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and NASCAR for overcoming challenges presented by the pandemic. Safety protocols limited fan attendance, and interfered with some of Fox’s marketing programs.
“With some of the challenges of not being able to execute on-site sponsorships in the manner in which we had originally negotiated, the advertisers very much worked with us,” Winter said. Fox still handled several activations, such as a launch for Hummer and Samsung’s 5G smartphones.
“The biggest challenge was moving inventory around as events migrated to different dayparts and weeks,” he said.
Live sports is one of the strongest genres on linear TV for advertisers seeking to reach a mass audience. While other genres of programming like drama and sitcoms face competition from streaming services, sports has endured in providing immediacy and excitement to fans.
“The sports genre is the best investment advertisers can make,” Winter said. “Live sports is probably the most predictable of media genres. There’s a rich track record of ratings and the deliveries of sports. There’s also an assurance of scale for most sports.”
Another key advantage of sports programming is the willingness of fans to seek out their favorite teams, regardless of viewing device. That’s an important distinction as people spend more time consuming media on connected devices.
“One of the philosophical decisions we made was to embrace a pass-through sales protocol for all of our network assets,” Winter said. “That allowed us to reach all of our viewers of a particular sport and users with one commercial messaging that we migrated across all platforms.”
Fox Sports has embraced the omnichannel environment, which includes over-the-top (OTT) devices to connect TVs directly to the internet.
“With the proliferation of OTT devices … we have not seen much attrition in our viewership and our subscriptions as we had perhaps forecasted,” Winter said. “We’ve seen a kind of stabilization of the impact of cord-cutting to our viewership and our distribution. People find sports wherever they want to find sports.”
Advertisers also are willing to commit media dollars to live sports programming on linear TV, leaving little room for programmatic placements.
“The demand is so great from our linear sales team that there’s very little inventory. We don’t have a lot of programmatic inventory for sale right now,” Winter said.
Because younger consumers are more likely to consumer media on multiple devices, distribution is critical in getting their attention.
“Reaching younger viewers is very important, and that’s something that we and the leagues are very mindful of — that we find our content accessible on platforms that younger users and viewers are using,” Winter said.
Live Sports are Poised for Big Comeback in 2021
Dan Lovinger, EVP, Ad Sales, NBCU SportsEpisode Summary
“History proves that people need sports the most. There’s always this huge desire for sports coming from fans,” Dan Lovinger, executive vice president of advertising sales at NBC Sports Group, said in this interview with Beet.TV.
He cited examples of when sports viewership has bounced back from interruptions ranging from player strikes to major disasters. The massive scale and stubborn persistence of the pandemic set it apart from other disruptions, challenging everyone involved with live sports to respond. “What was different this time was that sports stopped for a long, long time — and that left the leagues, the fans, the owners in a much different position,” Lovinger said. “All those people did a terrific job in trying to wade through this no-sports environment.” As sports leagues suspended play, NBC Sports was among the broadcasters that scrambled to reinvent its programming.
“Early on, we were faced with a real problem. We didn’t have sports for a sports network, other than some library content,” Lovinger said. “The biggest lesson that came out of the pandemic for us was the ability to add technology to our production, and create a lot of remote possibilities.” NBC Sports first focused on crafting shows based on its library of programming, such as “best of” highlights, countdowns and “stunting,” which describes one-time shows to draw a bigger audience. Sports broadcaster Michael Todd Tirico provided a lunchtime show from a makeshift studio in his home office. During the rescheduled French Open, tennis analysts weren’t sitting courtside at Stade Roland-Garros in Paris — and instead provided remote commentary from the NBC Sports Group campus in Stamford, Connecticut.
Combining Sponsorships and Media
With sports stadiums mostly empty of fans, leagues and broadcasters have worked on developing sponsorship packages that ensure higher visibility. Sections of many stadiums have coverings over the seating that prominently display logos of sponsors that are visible during games, as one example. “We are working with all the leagues to make sure the in-stadium signage is camera-visible where appropriate,” Lovinger said.
“We want to make sure our league partners are delivering to their sponsors as well.” NBC Sports is working with the organizers of the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles on developing opportunities for sponsor participation. “A lot of what we’ve been doing in terms of working with advertisers and sponsors has less to do with the pandemic, and more to do with the way we feel the model works better,” Lovinger said. “By combining sponsorships and media, we’re able to amplify everything we do in sponsorship with that the media presence and the storytelling capabilities that NBC in particular brings.”
Streaming Live Sports
NBCUniversal last summer rolled out Peacock to reach the growing number of households that are connecting their TVs directly to the internet. The over-the-top streaming service carries a mix of hit movies and shows, and is expanding its roster of live sports. Peacock is carrying games from the English Premier League (EPL), whose season began in September and runs through May 23.
The streaming service also showed the NFL Wild Card game between rust-belt rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. “Our hope is to add more sports to that platform, as our rights permit,” Lovinger said. “We hope that’s a great way to attract younger viewers.” Lovinger sees the possibility for sponsors to reach target consumer groups with its AdSmart solution for advanced advertising, and the mass audiences that tune into live sports. “When I look at something like an NFL Sunday night broadcast, I am never going to want to apologize for delivering 20 million adults to an advertiser,” he said. “That’s what you can do with something as big and powerful as an NFL game.”
Sports Sponsors Can Thrive in Hybrid Media World
Jon Stainer, Managing Director, Nielsen Sports Americas
The National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball were among the league that suspended operations in the spring as lockdowns went into effect. The pent-up demand for sports programming led to an initial surge in viewership, though audiences become more fragmented as leagues overlapped each other in competing for viewer attention. Leagues reformatted their live events to limit attendance by fans, many of whom turned to digital channels to find sports-related content. Motors sports performed well as NASCAR and IndyCar racing were among the first to return to television with live events."What we saw was a real ratings boost on the return to sports," Jon Stainer, managing director of Nielsen Sports Americas, said in this interview with Beet.TV. "We saw a general decline once seasons got into full flow. The exceptions to that were motor sports and golf that managed to sustain fairly strong viewing year-over-year despite the pandemic and the competitive programming." People ages 18 to 24, and those 55 and older increased their sports consumption from a year earlier, Stainer said. As sports fans looked for fresh programming, they boosted consumption of digital content. In the U.S., the top five digital platforms saw a yearly increase of 11 million consumers, ages 25 to 54. The trend showed "the increased media fragmentation in the marketplace, but also consumers going to digital platforms for their sports fix," Stainer said. Sports fans grew more aware about safety concerns with attending live sports as the year wore on, and demonstrated a growing hunger for live attendance. The portion of fans who agreed that sports leagues needed to protect their safety grew 10% from May to October, making up 74% of the fan base. The percentage of fans who agreed that the best way to express fandom was by attending a live game expanded by 24% during that period to about two-thirds of the fan base, Nielsen found in its exclusive surveys. Opportunities for Advertisers Because many sponsorship deals with sports leagues consist of multiyear contracts, the level of investment in sports wasn't affected dramatically. Instead, part of the spending shifting to digital channels that become key touchpoints with fans. "The big opportunity for brands is surviving and thriving in this hybrid world that we're going to live in, where live events and attending live entertainment are going to be very important, but so is playing in virtual world," Stainer said. "The big thing for the sports industry is how they best play in the virtual and digital environment, alongside the live environment where they've thrived for so many years." Younger consumers are more likely to consume media on smartphones, making digital video and social media platforms a key part of engaging them with sports content. "Sports needs to play where the younger viewers and consumers are congregating — that needs to be more in a virtual and digital world," Stainer said. "Sports needs to draw on a lot of the success of the games and esports environment." Last year was notable for the growth in esports as viewers flocked to livestreaming channels like Twitch and YouTube Gaming, which carried gaming tournaments that had been reformatted as virtual events. Younger consumers also tended to a show a preference for short-form video on apps like TikTok. Getting the attention of younger consumers with highlight reels that are easier to view is a key a part of transforming them into viewers of games that last several hours. "There's a lot of learning lessons to take from the esports and games environment into the sports business," Stainer said. "It's about crossing the divide from the linear and live experience into this digital and virtual experience."
Sports Offers reach, Authenticity for Advertisers
Tom McGovern, President, Optimum Sports
Brands seeking to reach a mass audience will keep partnering with broadcasters that offer unrivaled reach amid the fragmentation of media channels. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which were delayed by a year because of the pandemic, will showcase the power of live sports to drive viewership.
"The bulk of that consumption is going to take place on television," Tom McGovern, president of Optimum Sports, said in this interview with Beet.TV. "There's a lot of value in reaching a mass audience."
Digital channels tend to additive to the broadcast audience of cannibalizing it, while also providing more detailed information about viewers. However, sports fans are less likely to be cord-cutters because they want to access to live programming found on cable and satellite TV.
The pandemic disrupted viewing habits as many sports leagues suspended operations during lockdowns, and then competed with each other for viewers. The National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball aired their playoffs later in the year, all overlapping with the National Football League's regular season.
That created situations where fans in cities like Houston had to decide whether to watch the NBA's Houston Rockets, the NFL's Houston Texans or MLB's Houston Rockets play important games on the same day -- for the first time in almost 40 years.
The pandemic also led leagues to schedule games on unexpected days and at unusual times, making it harder for fans to watch.
There are signs that 2021 will be a more normal sports year as the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament resumes in March. Amid the reversion to a more normal schedule, some innovations that were byproducts of the pandemic are likely to last.
Sports network ESPN, as one example, scored network-high ratings for a documentary with its airing of "The Last Dance," which chronicled the Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' effort to win their sixth championship. The NFL also saw record ratings for its draft of college players, which was reformatted as a virtual event with camera crews placed nationwide.
Without fans in stadiums, broadcasters had more opportunities to experiment with different camera angles of games. In some cases, the change made brands more visible with their in-stadium activations.
"You may see more of that -- the different signage opportunities around stadiums and venues," McGovern said. "They've all had to get a little creative to bring things to the market, not only in the way the games are presented, but also with new opportunities for brands and marketers to engage."
Sports programming drives the creative decisions by marketers and their agencies, with TV commercials showing references to sports or featuring prominent sports personalities as spokespeople. Their appearances support their credibility of brands.
"When you see athletes endorsing brands in commercials, that's part of being in an authentic environment," McGovern said.
No Going Back to Content-First Targeting in Sports
Sean Cunningham, President & CEO, VAB & James Rooke, General Manager, Effectv
Branded Content, Consumer Insights Underpin Sports Strategy: Turner’s Tina Shah
Tina Shah EVP & GM, Turner Sports
Digital Experiences Enrich Sports Viewing: VAB’s Jason Wiese
Jason Wiese, SVP Director of Integrated Strategic Insights, VAB
Sports Is Still ‘Appointment TV’ Amid Shift in Viewing Habits: Horizon’s Adam Schwartz
Adam Schwartz, SVP Director of Sports Media, Horizon Media
Audience-Based Targeting Provides More Flexibility to Reach Sports Fans: Effectv's Melanie Hamilton
Melanie Hamilton, Head of Enterprise Sales, Effectv
Headline: Sports Are Key Part of 'Always-On' Marketing: Rocket Mortgage CMO Casey Hurbis
Casey Hurbis, Chief Marketing Officer, Rocket Mortgage
Younger Sports Fans Want More Control of Viewing: Amplifi's Mike Law
Mike Law, President, Amplifi USA & James Rothwell VP of Global Agency, Brand and Industry Relations at Comcast Advertising
Virtual Signage Raised Visibility on TV Sports During the Pandemic
Paul Muller, President, Tri State Honda
Streaming Complements Linear TV to Engage Sports Fans: Disney's Danielle Brown
Danielle Brown, VP, Ad Sales, Disney Advertising Sales
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