When the Yankees and Nationals square up in D.C. Saturday night, the fans will be virtual, a blur of digitized phantoms synched to pre-programmed crowd noises. The money spent by Fox’s in-game advertisers, however, is as real as it gets.
According to Seth Winter, Fox’s executive VP of sports sales, the company’s portfolio of 40 national MLB windows is 90 percent sold out, as marketers scrambled to align themselves with the reanimated national pastime. Saturday’s quadruple-header, which includes three games set to air on the Fox broadcast flagship and an NL West nightcap hosted by the cable channel FS1, is completely out-of-sale.
Many of the commercials that will run during the Yanks-Nats showdown are for Fox’s most steadfast MLB advertisers, who in the spring asked to be put on pause once it became apparent that baseball was headed for a lengthy hiatus. Sponsors who waited out baseball’s lengthy rain delay—it’s been 133 days since spring training was cut short by the coronavirus—were rewarded with in-game positions priced at the same rates that were negotiated before the pandemic put the sports world on pause.
“For those clients who waited it out with us and didn’t pull their money, we honored the original pricing,” Winter says. “It would have been inappropriate to do otherwise.” Winter adds that “virtually all” of Fox’s MLB advertisers took the wait-and-see approach, before adding that those that did ask for refunds are paying a 10 percent scatter premium to get back into the games. Given the scarcity of in-game inventory, that price hike will only increase as the 60-game season marches along.
Thanks to a compressed schedule that will make baseball an all-but-unavoidable feature of the summer TV slate—from now until the end of September, MLB will have only six off-days—Winter’s season has almost entirely been salvaged. If baseball can navigate its way straight through to the World Series, the canceled July 14 MLB All-Star Game is the only significant baseball write-off Fox will have to swallow.
Of course, that’s a big “if,” and while Winter is nothing if not pragmatic, his enthusiasm is, well, contagious. “To me, Saturday is a national holiday,” he says. “After being locked up for so many months, it’s a real awakening for the country to see that baseball’s back.”
A number of factors played a role in Fox’s MLB turnaround. For one thing, advertisers have been desperate to reach an engaged audience at scale. Per Nielsen, the MLB on Fox last season averaged 2.44 million viewers per game, the network’s biggest turnout since 2012. With an estimated average unit cost of around $64,589 per 30-second spot, Fox’s MLB sponsors can connect with an audience that isn’t likely to change the channel during the breaks—a set of circumstances unlikely to be replicated in any non-sports programming environment.
Relative scarcity (each in-game commercial pod is just two minutes long) and the postponement of the Summer Olympics ratings juggernaut also went a long way toward helping Winter move those MLB units. Across Fox and FS1, advertising in regular-season baseball generated some $105.6 million in revenue last season, per Standard Media Index data.
The demand for baseball on the local level has been just as feverish, as the regional sports networks managed by Fox’s Home Team Sports division will be sold out by next week. “The last two weeks it’s been non-stop,” says Home Team Sports exec VP Craig Sloan. “We’ve been trying to do the best we can to accommodate everyone, but there’s been far more demand than there is available inventory.”
Along with selling spots for the RSNs that carry MLB games in baseball’s 29 individual local markets (Toronto being the obvious outlier in the U.S. distribution scheme), Sloan has negotiated deals for what amount to national buys. Taco Bell, which has served as the official fast-food restaurant of MLB since 2004, doubled its investment with Home Team, committing to a presenting sponsorship of opening week across the RSN footprint.
Other national brands that have snapped up time in regional baseball telecasts include Molson Coors, Progressive, Subway, Amazon, USAA and T-Mobile, the latter of which is also an official MLB sponsor. The vast majority of Home Team’s advertisers are legacy clients; as was the case with Fox, pricing for sponsors who paused their initial investments was honored by the RSN group.
Along with the nation’s palpable hunger for top-tier sports, Sloan said he believes that the unpredictable nature of this rather unconventional baseball season will only intensify fans’ interest. “Every game counts!” Sloan said. “A team that rips off eight, nine wins in a row early on can put themselves in a position for a playoff run. That sort of engagement brings tremendous value.”
Home Team also flexed its muscles in the editing bay, producing a series of spots for BMW featuring four of baseball’s most exciting young players: Gleyber Torres, Anthony Rizzo, Ozzie Albies and Fernando Tatis Jr. Fans in Chicago can expect to see a lot of the Rizzo spot over the next several weeks; the Cubs first baseman, who first appeared in a BMW commercial last spring, pilots a BMW M8 Gran Coupe while musing about what it means to be a power hitter.
The custom commercials will air in their respective home markets—for example, Torres’ ad will appear on YES Network, while Rizzo’s spot is slated to run on the newly-launched Marquee Sports Network—while the 25 other baseball RSNs will carry a rotation of the four ads.
Baseball’s highest-rated RSN in 2019 was FS Midwest, which averaged a 6.6 household rating with its slate of St. Louis Cardinals games. All told, in-market MLB games on the 29 regional nets averaged a 2.9 rating.
The complete 2020 MLB schedules for ESPN and TBS have yet to be finalized. The season officially begins tonight in the nation’s capital, as the Yanks and Nets get the ball rolling on ESPN at 7:05 p.m. EDT, followed by Giants-Dodgers at 10:08 p.m. EDT. TBS airs its first game of the season on Sunday as—you guessed it—New York and Washington conclude their three-game series at 1:00 p.m. EDT.