Regardless of your political leanings and whether you’re a Buckeyes loyalist or a Wolverines diehard, it is perhaps uncontroversial to suggest that however things shake out with the presidential election, the end of this particularly crotchety campaign cycle will be a boon to sports fans of all stripes. Because if nothing else, the conclusion of Trump vs. Biden means there will be no more get-out-the-vote ads cluttering up our football.
While one of the side effects of quarantine has been a dilation and distortion of time, your eyes (and ears) haven’t been playing tricks on you. If the sheer volume of political ads we’ve been deluged with over the last six months seems somewhat overwhelming, it’s because the candidates and their allies spent a record amount of cash to ensure that their messages were inescapable. According to Advertising Analytics, the Trump and Biden camps, along with their respective party committees and a scrum of free-spending super PACs, have shelled out $1.3 billion on local and national TV ads, with the challenger outspending the incumbent by a good $310 million.
As sports is effectively TV’s last remaining reach vehicle, it stands to reason that the Trump and Biden teams would look to heavy up on live game coverage. Both camps have poured a good deal of cash into football broadcasts; that said, the disparity in national sports spend is in keeping with the overall advantage the Democrats hold over the Republicans in terms of overall TV investment.
Per iSpot.tv estimates, since Major League Baseball became the first top-tier sport to resume play on July 23, Biden for President has spent $102.7 million on coast-to-coast TV spots, of which $45.7 million was earmarked for sports. The Biden camp’s commitment to national TV inventory is about three times that of Donald J. Trump for President ($33.5 million), while the former VP’s sports spend is more than four times greater than the other side’s $10.8 million outlay.
The bulk of Biden’s sports investment has landed in NFL broadcasts, so much so that through Monday night, the campaign was the league’s tenth biggest-spending advertiser. Since the season began, Biden’s people have parted with $35.8 million in exchange for 119 in-game spots, a deep dive that delivered some 543.7 million impressions. Per iSpot, the average unit cost of the campaign’s NFL investment worked out to $193,508 per 30-second increment.
Biden capped his 2020 sports spend with a second-quarter buy in last night’s Bucs-Giants game on ESPN, while Trump gave the telecast a pass.
Biden’s campaign spots have been a mainstay of the NFL broadcasts since Sept. 10, when the Texans and Chiefs kicked off the new season on NBC. Through the first eight weeks of the NFL’s fall schedule, Team Biden has bought a 30- or 60-second spot in each of the 100 regional and national games played on Sunday, a tally that includes NBC’s primetime showcase. The challenger also has sunk not-inconsiderable sums into ESPN’s Monday Night Football and the Thursday night simulcasts on Fox/NFL Network.
The Trump campaign wasn’t nearly as profligate on Sunday football, dropping a relatively budget-minded $9.3 million on 52 in-game airings, for an average unit cost of around $160,000 a pop. In return, Trump’s ads delivered 167.8 million impressions. In terms of sheer dollar volume, the re-election effort is now the 65th-biggest NFL advertiser, tucking in between Hulu and Uber Eats.
Unlike Biden, whose NFL spend has been as consistent as the number 80 in a QB’s cadence, Trump went entire weeks without spending any money whatsoever on TV’s biggest ratings driver; rather than flood the zone with a spot in every game, the strategy was to go in heavy on specific weeks. Thus, after a flurry on in-game spend during the inaugural week of play, Team Trump held off for a bit before going full-bore again on Oct. 4 and Oct. 11. A final flurry on the day after Halloween mirrored the 2016 campaign’s spending patterns.
Among the super PACs, the blue team’s top NFL spender is Future Forward, a group that has been funded by a number of Silicon Valley heavies. The PAC, which in October spent tens of millions of dollars on local pro-Biden TV in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, also spent some $6.15 million on in-game spots in national NFL broadcasts. On the other side of the fence, America First laid out $2.8 million for 20 NFL spots.
With more money to burn in its marketing coffers, the Biden campaign also out-spent its rival in an effort to reach college football, baseball and basketball fans. Biden’s Saturday football bill ran to $2.59 million for 61 airings, most of which occurred in Big Ten, Big 12 and Mountain West broadcasts. Interestingly enough, while Florida remains as volatile as ever and the polls characterize the reliably blood-red Georgia as a toss-up, Biden’s team didn’t buy time in any SEC or ACC games. By comparison, Trump’s camp spent just $575,063 on nationally televised college football, a limited menu that focused on eight Big Ten and Big 12 contests.
The local media breakdown is another story. Among the key Big Ten states, the Trump camp is outspending the challenger in Minnesota, Ohio and Iowa, while Biden holds an advantage in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In SEC territory, Trump and his supporters have spent nearly $9 million more in Georgia, while Biden’s edge in Florida, where the two campaigns have combined to spend $165.8 million on local TV spots, is just north of $1 million.
A similar disparity held sway in MLB games, with Biden out-spending Trump by a margin of $5.1 million to just under $235,000. The bulk of Biden’s baseball budget went toward procuring five 60-second in-game World Series spots, for which the organization paid Fox $4.4 million. For its part, Team Trump not only sat out the Fall Classic, but more or less ignored the postseason altogether, spending $65,000 on two spots in the Rays-Jays ALWCS on TBS. The bulk of the president’s MLB investment was directed to Fox’s July 25 triple-header, which was capped by the Yankees-Nationals broadcast.
As for the NBA’s bubble tournament, Biden forked over $1.1 million for 25 in-game airings, while Trump unsurprisingly sat out pro hoops altogether. Biden’s people didn’t bother trying to pick up a unit here and there in the NBA Finals; per iSpot, the campaign’s last roundball buy was made on Sept. 20, which coincided with Game 2 of the Nuggets-Lakers Western Conference Finals on TNT. Given the title series’ steep ratings declines, Biden’s decision to sidestep the Lakers-Heat showdown wouldn’t seem to represent a lost opportunity.
As part of a late sports spasm, the Trump campaign on Sunday snatched up two spots in NBC’s coverage of the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville. When mixed in with the $60,000 the campaign paid for a 30-second unit in Fox’s broadcast of the May 24 Coca-Cola 600, Trump’s total NASCAR spend was a little more than $180,000. Biden’s NASCAR investment: $0.
Stock-car racing wasn’t the only sport to catch a Heisman-esque stiff-arm. Both candidates blew off tennis, golf and the ponies (the only race the Biden campaign backed was RuPaul’s Drag Race), and, mystifyingly enough, neither thought to make an effort to reach hockey fans, despite the fact that certain battleground states are home to NHL franchises.
The Detroit Red Wings stand tall in Michigan, where the two adversaries have spent a staggering $77.3 million on advertising, while Pennsylvania ($124.1 million in TV spend), where Biden is holding onto a five-point lead in the polls, is home to the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. A Stanley Cup buy would’ve put either pol in front of a whole slew of Tampa Bay Lightning fans, and at a deep discount compared to the $165.8 million they and their supporters doled out in Florida.
As much as hyper-targeting is still the norm, network ad sales execs began hinting at the coming deluge of national political spending back in July. On the day before the MLB season got underway, Seth Winter, Fox’s executive VP of sports sales, told Sportico that the proliferation of battleground markets had made national buys more attractive than in years past.
“There are now so many swing states that the legacy strategy of piecing together local media has evolved to include a greater emphasis on national TV,” Winter said, noting that a similar dynamic holds sway with regional fast-food chains. Which is why you’re bombarded by ads for Sonic when the nearest drive-through restaurant is 85 miles away and in a neighboring state. Once a business has penetrated into around 70% of U.S. markets, it’s simply easier (and far more efficient) to buy national airtime.