In retrospect, media watchers probably should have known that 2020 was going to be a year unlike any other when the sitting president of the United States and a candidate from the opposition party each plunked down $11 million to run campaign spots during the Super Bowl. As strategic gambits go, the Big Game buys were confounding—if nothing else, airing a get-out-the-vote ad a full 10 months before the polls open suggests a total lack of familiarity with America’s mayfly attention span—but Fox naturally was more than happy to indulge the pricey theatrics of President Donald Trump and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While day-to-day life largely has been disrupted since the Chiefs hoisted the Lombardi trophy, the shotgun variation on political advertising seems to have carried over from that long-ago evening in February. Since Major League Baseball helped kick-start the return of live sports on July 23, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has made an unprecedented investment in nationally televised sports, splurging on in-game NFL, NBA and MLB ad inventory as a means to amplify his positions on the pandemic, the economy and health care.
According to estimates from the ad-tracking firm iSpot.tv, Biden’s camp thus far has spent around $7.1 million on sports TV broadcasts, a figure that includes $450,000 in MLB units and nearly $1 million on the NBA’s successful bubble experiment. But the NFL really has its hooks in the Biden campaign; through the Monday Night Football twin bill on Sept. 14, the former Veep has spent $5.56 million on 24 in-game units across CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN, an outlay that paid off in a combined 101.3 million ad impressions.
Biden’s most effective buy to date was a 60-second spot in Fox’s Sunday afternoon national window, a throw down between Tom Brady’s Bucs and Drew Brees’s Saints. An emotional appeal to voters that played on the candidate’s unenviable acquaintance with grief, the “Personal” ad aired in the second quarter, right after Alvin Kamara’s six-yard touchdown scamper gave the home team a 14-7 lead. Plenty of would-be voters saw the Biden spot, as the Fox broadcast averaged a league-high 25.8 million viewers and a 13.2 household rating.
The Biden for President team bought time in every nationally televised NFL game, an ad blitz that included a 60-second spot in Thursday night’s NFL Kickoff Game on NBC, a half-minute of airtime in the second quarter of Sunday night’s Cowboys-Rams game and both ends of the ESPN doubleheader. Leaving no stone unturned, the campaign on Sunday afternoon ran a 30-second ad in each of the 11 regional games on CBS and Fox. All told, the NFL currently accounts for nearly one-quarter (24%) of Biden’s $22.9 million national TV spend, while his overall sports investment adds up to 31% of the total outlay to date.
Outside the NFL, the properties that have been on the receiving end of much of the Biden camp’s TV spend are the NBA and the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards.
On the other side of the aisle, the Donald J. Trump for President crew hasn’t been nearly as profligate as Team Biden, as the incumbent to date has limited his national TV spend to around $3.92 million. A good 40% of that sum, or $1.59 million, has been diverted to various programs on Fox News Channel, while another $1.12 million has ended up in the coffers of the NFL’s network partners.
While Trump’s football spend lags behind Biden’s, it still marks a considerable increase compared to 2016, when the candidate skipped the NFL’s opening weekend altogether before making a token investment in three regional CBS games on Sept. 25. It wasn’t until late October that the Trump camp really started ramping up its national sports buys; by the time the election results had been tallied, the campaign’s TV receipts included $4.5 million in NFL games and $3.5 million in World Series spots.
Trump’s budget is proportionate to Biden’s, with the NFL accounting for 29% of his national TV investment and sports making up 33% of the whole.
Given the president’s frequent criticisms of athletes who engage in pregame activities designed to draw attention to social justice issues, the presence of Trump campaign spots in NFL broadcasts may seem somewhat self-contradictory. The irony is sometimes almost a bit too on the nose; on Sunday night, at around the same time a 30-second Trump ad ran during NBC’s coverage of the Cowboys-Rams game, the president told a Nevada rally that football is “boring as hell.”
The president’s ennui didn’t prevent his handlers from cutting NBC a $900,000 check in exchange for an in-game spot. Per Nielsen, 18.1 million people were on hand to watch the ad, which aired immediately after the Dallas defense hectored Jared Goff into tossing a third-quarter pick.
If Trump for the most part has dialed down his NFL barbs—three years ago, he worked up a crowd in Alabama by intimating that any “son of a bitch” who took a knee during the National Anthem should be kicked off the squad—he still turns to Twitter to take the occasional swipe at the protest movement. There’s a weird double-bind at work when a candidate invests in a promotional vehicle that has long been the target of his disdain, and the dynamic gets even more muddled when various family members and media outlets contribute to the bashing. (In terms of sheer schizoid situations, try to imagine what it’s like for Fox’s broadcasting unit to produce and sell the single highest-rated program on TV while a primetime host at the network’s cable news sibling suggests that the NFL is at war with Christianity.)
As much as the Trump campaign’s NFL buys are emblematic of the anomie that informs more or less every aspect of American politics, not everything is a matter of equivocation. In other words, the president’s antipathy for the NBA makes it extremely unlikely that the campaign will look to lay some money down on the upcoming NBA Finals, which leaves Biden free to make an uncluttered pitch to the league’s younger audience. Meanwhile, both sides are expected to snap up a good deal of college football inventory once the SEC powers start butting heads, and the return of the Big Ten, a conference constructed almost entirely of swing states, should provide an irresistible target as well.
Trump’s team in 2016 waited until the two-minute warning before going whole-hog on the NFL and college football, with the bulk of its pigskin buys landing on the final weekend before Election Day. That’s a function of strategic imperative and campaign staffers looking to make a few bucks before they come to the end of the trail: A final flurry of big-ticket buys not only helps deliver a whole bunch of zero-hour impressions, but the 15% commission is a cozy bonus for the discerning media strategist who isn’t going to be offered a post in the next administration.
Network ad sales execs began hinting at the coming political deluge 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-thru 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.
None of which is to suggest that hyper-targeting still isn’t the norm. At the moment, the Biden campaign is doubling and tripling the Trump team’s TV spend in such crucial markets as Orlando and Phoenix, while quintupling its opponent’s investment in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison. Again, given the particulars of the electoral college map and the fact that the Big Ten is set to kickoff its football season just 10 days before voters head out to the polls, ESPN and Fox are already banking on a Midwest-delivered political windfall.
The politics tap shuts off in 46 days, just in time for the networks to start raking in the NFL playoff revenue. Whatever form “normal” eventually takes, sports will be at the center of it.