Olympic Ad Sales Set to Rebound as Sponsors Seek Certainty

·6 min read

With just 46 days to go before the long-delayed 2020 Summer Olympics is expected to get underway in Tokyo, NBC’s ad sales unit is still working to fill the blank spots in its ledger that were left behind by last spring’s postponement.

Back on March 3, 2020, just three weeks before the Tokyo Games were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, NBC Sports Group executive VP of ad sales Dan Lovinger told reporters that his team had secured more than $1.25 billion in national Olympics inventory, which marked an all-time record for the 17-night event. In the wake of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the International Olympic Committee’s joint decision to delay the Summer Games by a year, NBC’s big haul was scattered to the four winds, with some advertisers electing to walk away from their earlier commitments, while others effectively pressed pause on their investments before agreeing to restart their earlier media plans.

As NBC continues to convert its 2020 holds into firm orders, the network in recent weeks has seen an uptick in activity from clients that had been awaiting assurance that the Tokyo Olympics might actually go forward. In early May, Procter & Gamble, a key sponsor since the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, took the wraps off a new long-form corporate campaign that will be reinforced by a number of 30-second spots for many of the company’s individual brands. Perennially among the top 10 Olympics spenders, P&G ponied up $51 million for time in the 2014 Sochi Games.

One deep-pocketed advertiser that won’t be suiting up for Tokyo is McDonald’s, although the fast-food giant’s absence was telegraphed well in advance of the COVID-19 shutdown. An official Olympics sponsor since the Montreal Games, MacDonald’s pulled the plug on its deal with the IOC in 2017—three years before the negotiated expiration date. At the time of the split, the IOC said it would not seek out a replacement for the fast-food chain, which from an individual brand perspective was the eighth-biggest spender in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The loss of Mickey D’s doesn’t necessarily mean that Olympics viewers won’t get their fill of fast-food pitches; among the top advertisers during the most recent Summer Games were Pizza Hut, Subway, Dunkin’ and Dairy Queen.

NBC did not offer guidance as to how far along it is in the sales process, nor has it make any projections about how much of the original $1.25 billion in ad commitments would be re-expressed this summer. “We’re very pleased with our pacing and the market’s enthusiasm for the Tokyo Olympics,” an NBC Sports rep said in a statement. “Brands continue to recognize the unparalleled value of the Games, and we continue to work with them to innovate and deliver new opportunities that will enhance the impact of their campaigns and the viewer experience.”

National ad sales make up the bulk of NBC’s Olympics revenue haul. Per Comcast’s fourth quarter 2016 earnings report, the Rio Olympics generated $1.62 billion in total revenue, of which $1.19 billion landed at the NBC flagship and another $432 million was pulled in by the cable networks. National sales accounted for $1.2 billion of the total, while the rest was tied to digital and local station inventory. The total profit after production costs and rights fees: Approximately $250 million.

NBC’s sales efforts have been held up by the uncertainty surrounding the off-cycle Tokyo Games, which have come under fire as Japan faces its fourth wave of coronavirus infections. While government officials say they are doing all they can to ensure a safe staging of the summer spectacle, critics claim that Japan’s low vaccination rate devalues any such assurances. And as much as Japanese citizens now seem resigned to the notion that the Olympics will be held as planned, the enthusiasm with which the event was discussed back in 2019 seems to have dispelled entirely.

And the voices of dissent are getting louder. Japanese Olympic Committee board member and 1988 bronze medalist Kaori Yamaguchi on Friday caused a stir when she posed a hypothetical question as to who, exactly, the Tokyo Games are meant to serve. “The Games have already lost meaning and are being held just for the sake of them,” Yamaguchi wrote in an op-ed for a local news agency.

For all the discord that’s being voiced in Tokyo, that the Games will now actually take place seems almost inevitable. Two weeks ago, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said a cancellation of the Summer Olympics was “off the table,” before adding that only an apocalypse-level event would be sufficient cause to scrap a global gathering that’s already racked up $15.4 billion in sunk costs. The senior-most member of the IOC and a key figure in the negotiations for the U.S. TV rights in the 1980s and 1990s, Pound made waves last spring when he became the first insider to assert that the 2020 Games would be postponed.

In what may be the clearest indicator to date, NBC this afternoon issued a multi-page press release in which it reiterated its plans to air more than 7,000 hours of live Olympics action, a game plan that includes coverage on USA Network, CNBC, Golf Channel, the outgoing NBCSN and Peacock.

“We are going to deliver the most comprehensive—and accessible—coverage for any sports event in history,” said Molly Solomon, executive producer and president of NBC Olympics Production, as part of the press statement. “The depth and breadth of our broadcasts will be unprecedented, showcasing once-in-a-generation athletes and storylines that will capture the incredible uniqueness of these Games and our times.”

As currently scheduled, the Tokyo Olympics will air on NBC from July 23 through the closing ceremonies on August 8. The broadcaster will carry 250 hours of coverage, while the cable networks will handle somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,300 hours. Details about the Peacock schedule are still in the works, but the legacy NBC Sports digital properties are expected to stream more than 5,500 hours of Olympics coverage.

NBC has held the exclusive rights to the Summer Olympics since 1988. The network in June 2011 plunked down $4.38 billion for the privilege of covering the 2014-2020 Olympic Games, a hefty fee that three years later soared to $7.75 billion when NBC agreed to extend its deal through 2032. The Games are a massive ratings driver during the otherwise sleepy summer season; over the course of the Rio Games, NBC and its cable network siblings averaged a total audience of 27.5 million viewers and a 15.3 household rating.

The 2016 Summer Olympics also scared up a 7.5 rating in the dollar demo, which worked out to some 9.5 million adults 18-49 per night. By comparison, NBC’s Sunday Night Football averaged a 7.0 rating that previous fall.

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