LeBron James may not be particularly psyched for this year’s ad hoc NBA All-Star Game, but despite the reservations of the league’s top player and the ongoing contraction of the linear TV ratings, advertisers have gone all-in on Sunday’s telecast.
Speaking to reporters last month after the Lakers’ 114-93 victory over the Nuggets, James’ lack of enthusiasm for the proposed exhibition was palpable. “I have zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year,” James said in the wake of his 96th career triple-double. “I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star Game. … We’re still dealing with a pandemic, we’re still dealing with everything that’s been going on, and we’re going to bring the whole league into one city that’s open.”
James’ qualms aside, advertisers all but jumped at the chance to carve out some space in Sunday’s All-Star Game, which will once again be simulcast on TNT and TBS. Turner Sports chief revenue officer Jon Diament and his ad sales crew managed to sell out all in-game inventory across the two networks within a week of getting word that the NBA and the Players Association had agreed to a condensed version of what is normally a three-day event.
Diament was able to hasten the sellout by bundling playoff units with the All-Star spots. As is the case with nearly every Turner Sports pro hoops production, All-Star marketers also were given the opportunity to roll up their TV buys with inventory on NBA.com and Bleacher Report.
The usual suspects (wireless, quick-service restaurants/casual dining, auto, insurance) accounted for the most active categories. Streaming services have stepped in to replace the movie studios, which in 2020 scarfed up 10 in-game units. According to ad buyers with skin in the game, pricing for Sunday’s twin telecasts is largely consistent with last year’s rates, which averaged out to around $185,000 per 30-second spot. In exchange, advertisers reached some 7.28 million viewers across the two cable nets, with TNT being the beneficiary of the bulk of those deliveries (6.06 million).
Since James expressed his disenchantment with the NBA’s decision to forge ahead with a truncated version of All-Star weekend, his sentiments have been echoed by the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Carmelo Anthony. Despite averaging a career-high 22.3 points per game, Kings guard De’Aaron Fox, who was the first player to express misgivings over the scrimmage (“I think it’s stupid … but obviously money makes the world go ‘round”), was not selected as a reserve.
As it happens, Fox’s read on the league’s motive for holding the All-Star Game in Atlanta this Sunday goes a long way toward explaining why advertisers were eager to invest in the Turner package. Per iSpot.tv estimates, the 2020 All-Star Game served up 727.5 million cumulative ad impressions, a barrage that included 230.6 million impressions among the key adults 18-34 demo. The Final Four represents the next chance that advertisers will have to reach as many younger consumers via national TV, and given the outsized impact of those CBS broadcasts, marketers are looking at around a $950,000 unit cost in the primetime window.
If the All-Star Game’s deliveries have been remarkably consistent over the last decade, ad buyers are well aware that this year’s event is likely to face some serious ratings headwinds. While the NBA has managed to eke out a 4% gain in its national TV ratings since the season began, the overall state of the medium remains discouraging. Per Nielsen, 8.6 million fewer people this season are turning on their sets during the primetime hours than was the case a year ago, and usage among members of the 18-49 demo is down 19%.
Given the thrown-together nature of this year’s All-Star Game—when Team LeBron vs. Team Durant tips off Sunday night, 17 days will have elapsed since the NBA took the wraps off its Atlanta scheme—and the general wonkiness of the overall ratings picture, advertisers should brace themselves for a 25% drop compared to last year’s game. And if the understanding that more than a few stars are effectively playing under protest isn’t exactly a gift to the TNT marketing department, cramming the skill challenges, three-point shooting competition and slam dunk contest into Sunday’s All-Star schedule isn’t the most ratings-friendly solution. (Unless you’re a complete degenerate and you bet on the spread, at what point does a 342-point game start to lose its luster…especially when it’s been stretched out to accommodate a halftime dunkathon?)
Fans who do stick around for the whole shebang will recognize most of the integrated sponsors. Kia, which has served as the official automotive sponsor of the NBA since 2008, returns as the presenting sponsor of the game itself, while American Express will mark its sixth outing as the halftime sponsor. One notable change will see CarMax replace Autotrader as the backer of TNT’s pre-game show.