Because of pinched budgets during the pandemic, the NBA is allowing broadcasts this season to include virtual ads on the court during games. The Nets and their TV partner, YES Network, originally decided to hold off on selling that space. On Thursday, 24 hours after the team acquired Harden in a blockbuster trade, the two sides reversed course. In a few weeks, advertising partners will have placement on the court during home and away games.
The trade “definitely pushed us quicker to the table,” said Howard Levinson, YES Network’s senior vice president of ad sales. “We were trying to develop a market for it, and now we feel like with this trade, the market will be there.”
It won’t be the only major change for the network. Ad rates, which Levinson said have already doubled from last year, will likely increase again as Harden takes the court alongside former MVP Kevin Durant and (hopefully) perennial All-Star Kyrie Irving.
“It’s a supply and demand business,” Levinson said. “If a lot of the calls that we’ve gotten in the past 24 hours translate into the kind of business I think it will, the rates will be going up again. As we sell more, and inventory dwindles, we raise the rates. That’s the plan for right now.”
In a typical year, YES Network will enter the season with about 70% of its inventory already booked in what’s called “upfront” business. The rest is filled in as the season goes. This year, however, because of the disrupted NBA calendar and the uncertainty of the global pandemic, the network ended up with more to sell throughout the year.
That should work in its favor, especially if the new inventory and Harden’s arrival coincide with more optimism about an end to the pandemic. It will also benefit YES Network’s preexisting partners, such as Ford and FanDuel.
“We are thoughtful when selecting our partners, knowing the strength of their consumer brands and local fan base in each market,” Andrew Sneyd, senior vice president of brand at FanDuel, said in a statement. “The trade yesterday is incredibly exciting for the Nets, Net’s fans, YES, and FanDuel.”
So far this season, Nets games on YES are averaging 72,000 total viewers, up 18% from the first 11 games last year. Levinson said those numbers don’t necessarily reflect the full increase in interest—the team has had three Sunday games (a day dominated by NFL), and both Irving and Durant have missed a chunk of the early slate.
The trade’s impact, however, may be limited because the Nets (and their partners) already entered the season with giant expectations. This is the first year Irving and Durant are on the court together, and YES Network has been running promos openly discussing a deep playoff run, and even a potential championship.
Even so, Levinson said he’s had a busy 24 hours, with calls coming in three main waves. First were the team’s partners who are also Nets fans, genuinely excited about what the addition of Harden might mean on the court. Next came a set of the team’s current ad partners, triple-checking that their upcoming inventory was still set to run. Lastly came the calls from potential new partners.
“We were already talking about great things for this team,” Levinson said. “With the third major star, what that does is make it more of a spectacle.”
(This story has been updated to clarify YES Network’s partners in the seventh paragraph.)