No Baseball Ad Rainouts

Mar 29, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Despite the ailing economy, baseball is being very, very good to television networks that carry the games.
With Opening Day on April 6, sponsors are lining up for the Great American Pastime.
“Regular-season baseball sales are holding up very nicely,” said Fox Sports President Ed Goren. “In this environment, there’s not a lot of good news, but that would fall in the category of good news.”
While some high-profile sporting events have had to cut their top prices to sell out their advertising time, baseball is in a unique situation, said Miraj Parikh, media director at Spark Communications, part of the Starcom MediaVest Group.
“I think Major League Baseball will be a little insulated from the wholesale discounting that’s been going on because it is more affordable and it’s a broader appeal game,” Mr. Parikh said.
Nonetheless, baseball is feeling the effects of the economy. Fox has decided not to air a pre-game show before its Saturday game of the week. Instead it will concentrate its resources on producing and selling ads during the games themselves, Mr. Goren said.
With many advertisers waiting until the last minute to commit to ad buys, some networks are creating shorter sponsorship packages. Instead of trying to get clients to commit to a full season, they are willing to sell on a month-to-month basis.
“It’s not all our business that we’re driving that way, but we’re being willing to be flexible because we need to be,” said Eric Johnson, executive VP of multimedia sales at ESPN. “We have a lot of business working now. Some is traditional and they’re buying it for the full quarter, and then we have others who are buying in four-week chunks. We want to take what we have and sell it accordingly.”
It’s probably not the best time to be launching a new network, but despite the economy, the MLB Network seems to be safely on base.
“We’ve shown we can program the heck out of the off-season,” CEO Tony Petitti said. “There’s plenty of stuff to cover.”
The network has been showing pre-season games. Once the regular season starts, it will have live games on Thursday nights and a live eight-hour studio show, “MLB Tonight,” the rest of the week.
By partnering with the major cable operators and DirecTV, Major League Baseball was able to launch its new channel in 50 million homes and generate substantial subscriber revenues.
“It’s a great business model,” Mr. Petitti said.
Former CW executive Bill Morningstar, MLB Network’s executive VP for ad sales, is working to bring sponsors on board.
“We want to make the advertisers part of our business,” Mr. Morningstar said. He’s even willing to sell signage in the network’s Studio 42, a half-sized baseball stadium built inside its Secaucus, N.J., headquarters.
MLB Network was able to sign up blue-chip advertisers including IBM, the title sponsor for last month’s World Baseball Classic coverage, and Sprint, the sponsor of “WBC Tonight.”
Even though MLB Network is in 50 million homes, Nielsen won’t be ready to provide ratings for the channel until the fourth quarter—after the 2009 season ends.
While the MLB Network could create competition for some baseball outlets, it also should contribute business to the sport.
“For the Fox game of the week, and the All-Star Game and post-season, the promotion and coverage of baseball by the baseball network is a plus,” Mr. Goren said. “On the cable side, if that were the hat I was wearing, I could very easily see how I could look at the baseball network as a competitor. It depends on where you’re coming from.”
Mr. Goren said he expected Fox’s baseball coverage to begin the season with strong viewership because its early schedule includes games featuring big-market rivalries such as the Chicago Cubs playing the St. Louis Cardinals, the New York Yankees playing the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets taking on the world-champion Philadelphia Phillies.
“I expect we’re going to get out of the box very strong,” Mr. Goren said.
Without a pre-game show, Fox baseball will be going on the air at 4 o’clock, except on weeks when it’s followed by NASCAR, when it will start half an hour earlier.
Fox will air a mini-pre-game show hosted by Chris Rose live from one of the game sites, then move efficiently to the first pitch, Mr. Goren said.
In addition to the tough economics of doing a pre-game show, Mr. Goren said it’s difficult to produce a half-hour weekly baseball show “when there is so much baseball information out there on a daily basis,” noting the MLB Network “is certainly going to more than make up for anything we’re going to be doing on a Saturday.”
At ESPN, Mr. Johnson notes that in the current economy, “Of all the things we’re worried about, baseball’s probably not one of those things.”
He said ESPN consistently has great sell-throughs for its baseball coverage, “and I don’t expect that to be any different this year.”
ESPN has longtime advertiser Home Depot signed up as presenting sponsor of Opening Day and Opening Night. Other returning baseball sponsors on ESPN broadcasts include Verizon, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.
ESPN also has targeted the movie studios, signing up Paramount’s new “Star Trek” movie as the presenting sponsor of the Mets’ April 13 opener at the new Citi Field.
“We’re trying to find ways to take advantage of what Hollywood provides in terms of content and stars,” Mr. Johnson said.
This year ESPN also is putting together multiplatform packages designed to combine ESPN’s baseball coverage with its digital assets, such as its Game Tracker, Buster Olney’s baseball blog or the online version of “Baseball Tonight.”
He notes that ESPN’s digital consumers are very young compared with other baseball consumers.
At Turner Sports, Jon Diament, executive VP of ad sales and marketing, said that following last year’s high-rated post-season, “We don’t have one advertiser that’s not coming back.”
Key returning sponsors include Pfizer, BlackBerry, Sharp, Geico and DirecTV.
Mr. Diament also has seen advertisers making commitments later.
“What we’re doing to compensate for that is we’re preparing in advance sponsorship elements so that when the budgets come down, we are prepared to sell them very smart, integrated, strategic platforms that are customized for them, even if it’s last-minute,” he said.
Those platforms are designed for new advertisers in categories being targeted by Turner and Major League Baseball.
For example, one company could buy a package aimed at people holding viewing parties at home during the game.
“You could think about all the things you might want to serve at a viewing party, whether it’s snacks or beverages, or take-out food from a quick-serve restaurant,” Mr. Diament said.
Other packages would focus on health and fitness, environmental friendliness, diversity and travel, highlighting the cities where the games are held.
Turner will look to sell those sponsorships for both the regular season and the playoffs.
“What we would like to do is introduce post-season to regular-season sponsors,” Mr. Diament said. “It’s one long season, and you can develop a real consistent sponsorship message that is customized when you come to Turner Sports.”
Mr. Diament believes baseball will continue to hold up throughout the season.
“It’s DVR-proof, live, exciting and localized. There’s a lot of strong elements to what baseball brings to the party that are difficult to find in TV and elsewhere,” he said. “I think a lot of traditional and nontraditional categories will recognize the family-friendly traditional values that are important for society as well as for advertisers.”


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