After 140 days of riding the viral pine, the NBA on Thursday will re-start its pandemic-halted season with a roster of fired-up TV advertisers and, more importantly, a clean bill of health.
The league announced Wednesday that all 344 players inside the Orlando bubble who’d been swabbed for the coronavirus tested negative, a welcome development that seems to reinforce Gregg Popovich’s recent assertion that the NBA’s isolation zone is “the safest place to be.” If the protocols and precautions continue to keep the sickness at bay, Disney and Turner Sports will have a rare opportunity to claw back all the revenue they’d lost during basketball’s four-and-a-half-month hiatus.
For TNT, a revived slate of 18 NBA games (seven of which are scheduled to air in primetime) should make up for the losses it suffered while the league was in quarantine. According to MoffettNathanson estimates, TNT this spring lost $211 million in NBA ad sales; during last week’s second-quarter earnings call, the network’s parent company, AT&T, reported that the pandemic had cost its WarnerMedia unit $620 million in overall revenue.
In an interview with Sportico, Turner Sports executive VP & Chief Revenue Officer Jon Diament said nearly all of his NBA advertisers who’d been put on pause in March have since reactivated. “We had an incredibly strong bunch of advertisers when the season started, and after shutting down in the first quarter, we’re back in business,” Diament says. “Very few, if any, categories dropped out, and those that were particularly impacted by the coronavirus in the spring have since adapted their business models to the new reality.”
Case in point: Official NBA sponsor Anheuser-Busch InBev, which began ratcheting down its marketing spend as the coronavirus began sealing off bars and sports arenas. With no televised sports to buy or out-of-home customers to reach, Bud Light spent just $990,000 on national TV advertising in June, down 83% versus its year-ago investment of $5.98 million. But as the country begins to re-open for business, the brand’s TV spend has grown accordingly. Bud Light’s July outlay stands at $1.7 million, and while that’s down 55% compared to the analogous period in 2019, it marks a 72% sequential lift over its June spend.
Bud Light’s recent hike in TV buys coincides with a new ad campaign designed to celebrate the return of live sports. Last week, its sibling brew, Michelob Ultra, signed on as the new official beer partner of the NBA, taking over where Budweiser left off.
Diament notes that beer isn’t the only ad category that has had to devise a new marketing playbook on the fly; the sports-sales vet says that movie studios are shifting to promote streaming video and on-demand releases, while eateries are emphasizing pick-up and delivery options.
TNT tips off the league’s resurrected schedule tonight with a doubleheader (Jazz-Pelicans, Clippers-Lakers).
While some marketers aren’t expected to return to the airwaves anytime soon—according to iSpot.tv estimates, the first three months of lockdown saw airlines spend just $850,545 on national TV spots, which marks a staggering 92% drop-off compared to the $10.4 million invested over the same period last year—the hibernation of those particular categories isn’t a matter of undue concern to the NBA’s media partners.
“Travel’s mostly a local category, targeted to airline hubs and certain points of departure for the cruise lines,” Diament says. “We don’t have a lot of exposure there.” Indeed, unless you consider the U.S. Air Force to be a highly specialized air-transport service, nothing with wings has advertised in TNT’s 2019-20 NBA telecasts. Of the 280 brands that have bought time in those games, only Marriott and Hotels.com may be characterized as travel-related entities; together, the two account for less than 1.3% of the network’s in-game NBA sales.
Along with the horde of returning advertisers looking to reconnect with hoops fans, TNT’s stable of presenting sponsors are suited up and ready for the reboot. As such, TNT’s tip-off show will continue to be presented by Autotrader, while State Farm retains its bragging rights as presenting sponsor of the NBA on TNT studio show. Also back in uniform are halftime sponsor American Express and post-game backer Kia. All four brands are official NBA sponsors.
Following tonight’s doubleheader on TNT, ESPN gets back into the swing of things with a Friday night two-for (Celtics-Bucks, Rockets-Mavs). As with Turner Sports, the Disney networks have been given an opportunity to make up for their quarantine losses, which MoffettNathanson pegged at $241 million. ESPN will carry 17 of the remaining regular-season games, with three contests set to air in prime. Broadcast sibling ABC has three Sunday games in the hopper and will pick up a play-in game on August 15, should circumstances so require.
A Disney rep said that many of the 100+ advertisers that bought NBA inventory on ESPN and ABC have returned for the restart. Among the categories that have flooded the zone include the usual suspects: Auto, fast-food restaurants, beer and spirits, entertainment and insurance.
At the start of the season, Disney said it had signed on 25 advertisers that were new to the NBA, including Target, Nature’s Bounty and Invisalign. Per iSpot estimates, Target thus far has been the biggest spender of the aforementioned trio of newbies, snapping up the equivalent of 47 in-game units on ESPN and one 30-second spot during ABC’s Sunday coverage. Nature’s Bounty has picked up 24 in-game units across the two networks.
Among Disney’s most prominent NBA advertisers in 2019-20 were State Farm, Taco Bell, Metro by T-Mobile, Allstate, Mountain Dew and Toyota. Mountain Dew also serves as the presenting sponsor of ESPN’s pregame show, NBA Countdown.
As much as both media partners are looking forward to getting basketball back in play, the real money won’t start pouring in until a postseason gets underway.
According to Standard Media Index data, the average unit cost for an in-game spot during the playoffs last season cost nearly $95,000 a pop, a rate in keeping with the amount of commercial impressions served up by the best-of-seven series. Per Nielsen, ESPN set a seven-year record with its coverage of the deciding game of the Warriors-Rockets quarterfinals, averaging 7.33 million viewers and a 4.5 household rating—deliveries that nearly matched the turnout for the fourth and final game of the Western Conference Finals (7.79 million/4.7).
TNT posted its playoffs high-water mark with the fourth game of that Warriors-Rockets series, averaging 6.88 million viewers and a 4.3 rating with its coverage of Houston’s 112-108 win.
Should the bubble hold and the NBA make it all the way to end of the line, ABC will look to cash in on the allure of sports’ youngest-skewing major championship. (With a median age of 47.4 years, the 2019 NBA Finals audience was somewhat dewier than those who tuned in for Super Bowl LIV—49.1 years—and quite a bit younger than the 56.9-year-old World Series median.) With youth and reach come a big payday for ABC, which should generate more than $200 million in ad sales revenue if the Finals goes at least five games.