By Dan Hirschhorn
With the basketball lockout dragging into Thanksgiving and even a partial season increasingly in doubt, networks that don’t carry the NBA are trying to poach advertisers from networks that normally do.
Their sales pitches are focusing on sports programming and other entertainment options that cater to young men, according to interviews with multiple industry insiders, as well as integrated digital and social-media marketing opportunities that networks are painting as very much on the rise.
"I have three young male brands that can be a great alternative to the NBA," said Jeff Lucas, head of sales for Viacom Media Networks Music and Entertainment Group, confirming that his sales team is pitching NBA advertisers. "Business has to go on. Advertisers have to sell product. They can’t just sit on the sidelines and wait."
Viacom has already "seen some ad dollars flow our way," Mr. Lucas said, though he wouldn’t name specific marketers making the jump.
"Every sales team on the street has an NBA alternative plan they’re pitching to advertisers," said Jeff Siegel, senior VP for global media sales at digital technology company Rovi and a former sales executive at ESPN. "I think people were holding on to money in the hope that the season would be saved. But people are more pessimistic now, and you’ll start hearing more about money shifting because people have to make plans."
The lowest-hanging fruit for would-be poachers: brands that specifically need sports ratings points to market new product launches. Adidas, for example, had been slated to air an ad during NBA games of Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose evading bull fighters for the launch of its new adiZero Rose 2 shoe. But with the NBA off the air, Adidas moved that money to pro football broadcasts, according to people familiar with the shift.
Whether the poaching efforts resonate with marketers, however, remains to be seen. ESPN, which said it’s working closely with advertisers and is "prepared to re-express dollars currently committed to the NBA to other properties," is protected by a deep menu of sports programming options. Turner, whose TNT network airs NBA games, said it’s moving ad dollars to platforms like TBS and Adult Swim, and will be bolstered by its share of NCAA men’s college basketball tournament games in March.
But missing the start of an NBA season is one thing. NBA advertising dollars are heavily backloaded toward the second half of the season and the playoffs, so if the lockout stretches past into next year, holding on to that money will become a taller order.
"To date [ESPN and Turner] have been fairly successful in maintaining some of the spend level they would have had in NBA programming," said Bryce Townsend, CEO of Group M ESP, Group M’s entertainment and sports marketing arm. "For both ESPN and Turner, as we get later into this year and into next year, it definitely becomes more challenging. You have brands that will exercise options to pull back their commitments."
Among the most likely successful poachers could be CBS, Fox and its portfolio of sports programming, NBC and its soon-to-be relaunched sports network, and Viacom Media Networks Music and Entertainment Group, which includes Spike TV, Comedy Central and MTV2.
By no means are the bottom lines of either network in peril yet, and there’s no indication of an impending mass exodus of NBA advertisers. But the sales pitches are sure to continue and intensify as time goes on.
"They know there are ad dollars in play," said a top sports marketing executive who used to work with the NBA. "Right now, it’s a buyers’ market. The other networks have to be creative in how they’re trying to provide opportunities to swing advertisers in their direction. Keep in mind that a lot of this is about trying to reach a male demographic, and there’s a significant amount of content that’s no longer available.
"It makes the scatter marketplace more robust, because you’ve got a billion dollars of inventory now floating around," this executive added. The "scatter" market is where marketers buy ad time close to air date, as opposed to the annual "upfront" market where they make commitments ahead of time.
Christmas Day, when the NBA usually airs a full slate of big matchups on national TV, could become a turning point for advertisers and networks if it passes with no basketball, according to Mr. Townsend. "That would be a big loss," he said.