Fox Sports Upfront Pitch Kicks Off Hottest Ad Market in a Decade

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The rollout of the 2021 NFL schedule may have been delayed by nearly a month, but now that advertisers have a more complete sense of where best to place their money in the fall, an already simmering sports-sales marketplace has come to a full boil.

Speaking in advance of Fox Sports’ virtual upfront presentation Friday, Seth Winter said early indicators suggest TV’s annual sales bazaar will be the most lucrative in a decade. “The upfront can start as late as June, but we’ve been in the thick of it for weeks now,” said Winter, who serves as executive VP of sports sales for the Fox unit. Winter added that a sense of urgency (and a significant show of dollar volume) has accompanied the early deals.

Generally speaking, inventory pegged to the fall sports schedule doesn’t tend to start flying off the shelves until after Memorial Day, but for marketers with deep pockets who aren’t already locked in to multi-year deals, there’s no time like the present. Get caught napping, and you’ll very likely be shut out of the most high-impact NFL and college football games; foot-draggers who do manage to grab a few units here and there on the scatter market can expect to pay a premium of 30% or higher compared to the rates being set in the upfront.

Scatter NFL buys are not for the faint of heart. A 30-second unit in Fox’s national Sunday afternoon window that fetches $775,000 during the spring selloff will cost as much as $1 million a few weeks before kickoff, and that buy won’t come with a ratings guarantee. In other words, if an advertiser is budgeting for 25 million impressions and the game averages 20 million viewers, that buyer will not only have spent $250,000 more than it would have if it had purchased the ad unit upfront, but it will have underperformed its target deliveries by 20%.

Naturally, the advertisers don’t need to be reminded about the perils of holding out for scatter, and it’s not 1983, so Winter’s not exactly going to hustle the Verizon rep over to the bar at 21 to hash out a $40 million deal on the back of a cocktail napkin. (For one thing, Fox is making their upfront pitch in Los Angeles; for another, 21 is closed.) Rather than a hard sell, the Fox Sports upfront show is designed to get an already close circle of buyers and advertisers hyped for the season that lies ahead, so there’s plenty of highlight reel fodder and amiable jawing from the likes of Joe Buck and Erin Andrews. Joining the Cowboys and Packers on this year’s sizzle reel are Tom Brady and his Super Bowl champion Bucs; as Fox Sports’ lead strategist, research guru and horse-racing enthusiast Mike Mulvihill is wont to say, the network is going to ride these three franchises into the home stretch of the 2021 NFL season.

While the rest of us muck around with our Commodore 64-grade brains, Mulvihill’s gray matter is more akin to a Cray Supercomputer, and his segment is always a highlight of the Fox Sports upfront show. Mulvihill this afternoon gave what amounts to a TED Talk on the impact and value of live sports, and among the more fascinating observations he made had to do with Fox’s NFL package and the buying power of the home markets represented by its stable of NFC teams.

Not only does Fox’s NFC slate cover 13 of the 15 largest U.S. media centers, but its 16 NFL markets are home to 42.9 million TV homes, or 36% of the nation’s total TV-owning residences. And while that gives Fox a leg up in the annual ratings race, Mulvihill sprung an even more compelling set of figures on his ad-buying audience.

As Mulvihill notes, the economics underpinning the local NFL markets are staggering. The numbers are so massive that they’re practically abstractions; according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Metropolitan Domestic Product of the 16 NFC markets in 2020 added up to a staggering $7.31 trillion, while the AFC markets were no slouch at $5.35 trillion. New York and Los Angeles alone, which are shared by both conferences, accounted for $2.62 trillion, while powerhouses such as Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco each threw off more than half-a-trillion dollars.

Before the Fox Sports show got underway, Mulvihill said his analysis of the NFL home markets is designed to take the sales conversation beyond the conventions of media concentration. “This may be an eye-opening way of looking at the power of our affiliate markets,” Mulvihill said. “Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, D.C. are really dynamic superstar cities that are the centers of a diverse range of industries. So, as an advertiser, not only are you buying Tom Brady and the Packers and the Cowboys, but you’re also buying these local economies. And I think that’s a point of differentiation for us.”

Speaking of Brady, the man with the seven Super Bowl rings was the topic of a discussion Buck and Andrews had with No. 12’s favorite target, Rob Gronkowski. Radiating the energy of a freakishly large golden retriever puppy with impulse-control issues, Gronk weighed in on Brady’s viral celebration at sea. Noting that Brady rarely lets his hair down with such vigor, Gronk suggested that his QB will be even more off-the-chain if the Bucs win Super Bowl LVI.

“He was a little tipsy, and he deserved it, but he needs to be extremely hammered if he wins eight,” Gronk said. “He has a total free pass. Like, if he goes to jail they should just open the cell door and be like, ‘Tom, you’re free.’”

As for Fox Sports CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks, his upfront chalk talk boils down to a celebration of fans returning to the stadiums and arenas, as well as the company’s live sports assets. These include the top-rated Sunday NFL window, as well as Fox’s final season of Thursday Night Football, a Big Ten-heavy college football portfolio and the World Series—all of which make the network a must-buy for marketers looking to reach the greatest possible number of consumers during the time of year when Americans spend the most money.

Over the 20 weeks that align with football season, which coincides with the free-spending back-to-school and holiday intervals, Americans buy an absolute ton of stuff. In that narrow window, Americans spend about $300 billion more than they do January through August, and at the same time so many people have their wallets and purses out, Fox Sports is reaching more of these consumers than any other outlet. So while some marketers may try to patch together their target impressions by cherry-picking low-rated primetime entertainment shows, the smart buy for those trying to move cars off the lot or get soda down as many gullets as possible is a heavy sports schedule.

Fox in 2020 was home to the season’s three most-watched NFL broadcasts, including the Thanksgiving Day Cowboys game that delivered 30.3 million viewers. Eleven of the top 20 NFL games aired on Fox, while CBS laid claim to seven and NBC’s Sunday Night Football notched two.

All told, the NFL in an election year delivered 33 of TV’s 50 biggest audiences and 71 of the top 100. Those numbers alone may account for the urgency with which advertisers have been buying time in the fall games, but relative scarcity is also moving the needle. About 45% to 50% of all in-game inventory is already spoken for, thanks to the preponderance of multi-year marketing deals. In a bull market, ad units that are hard to come by in May are going to be all but out of reach come September, and anyone arriving to the party that late is looking at an even more extravagant cover charge than what the spring arrivals are paying.

Winter believes that advertisers will get even more bang for their bucks as the U.S. begins to claw its way back to a vaccine-enabled sense of normalcy. As stadiums begin filling up again, the paralytic uncertainty that made it next to impossible for marketers to map out a coherent media strategy over the last year is being replaced by a sense of clarity and optimism.

“Along with the demand we’re seeing for our NFL, college football and Major League Baseball properties, the market is being energized by a resumption of investment from many of the categories that were fallow last spring,” Winter said. While supply-chain issues are hindering the automotive category, studio spend is on the rise, and that resurgence in theatrical investment is happening alongside the arms race in the streaming/OTT space.

Meanwhile, the insurance and wireless brands continue to pour buckets of money into live sports, a frenzy that is in many ways informed by those industries’ internecine dynamics. Insurance and telco companies are all about attacking and defending, with the objective being to forever be positioned to pick off the stragglers in high-churn environments where customers hop from policy to policy, and from mobile carrier to mobile carrier.

Fox Sports expects to resume its traditional upfront road show next spring. A typical presentation consists of a pitch to the top media agencies on their home turf in New York, L.A. and Detroit, one that includes a panel discussion with Fox Sports talent like Buck, Terry Bradshaw and MLB postseason mainstay Alex Rodriguez. Shot on location at the Fox Century City lot, this year’s show was buffed to a high sheen, featuring a comedic segment in which celebrities like Joel McHale, J.B. Smoove and Danny Trejo auditioned to replace Urban Meyer on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff.

While Trejo seemed like a solid choice, given his self-professed excellence at “organizing prison riots,” Fox went with a more traditional choice in former Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops.

The Fox presentation also included a bit in which an unhinged Alexi Lalas tries to enlist a blissed-out Landon Donovan to help him bang the drum for the “Summer of Soccer.” In the baseball portion, A-Rod predicted the Yankees would go to the World Series, while the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas, gave viewers a preview of the much-anticipated August 12 Field of Dreams game from Dyersville, Iowa. A more somber MLB event will pair the Yanks and Mets on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

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