Live Sports Are Returning to TV

By Conor O'Malley  | 

For sports fans, it’s been a long three months. Professional leagues shut down in mid-March due to the coronavirus, but summer promises a renewal of game-filled days as live sports prepare to make their television comeback. That spells equally good news for networks. In total, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL drummed up over $6.5 billion in national ad sales during their last full seasons, according to Kantar Media. The resumption of live sports could reinvigorate the ad sales market, while heralding a much-needed return to normalcy for millions of Americans who miss the sight of Friday night lights. In the meantime, here’s how marketers made do while sports stayed dark, and a look at when the comebacks might resume.

Competitions Took the Place of Games
Audiences and advertisers alike were ravenous for any type of sports offerings these last three months, as evidenced by the range of innovative competitions that crept up to take the place of missing games. May 24 witnessed “The Match: Champions for Charity,” a live golf tournament featuring greats Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, along with NFL legends Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. WarnerMedia sold out advertising slots for the philanthropic contest months in advance, with Capital One, Audi, Michelob Ultra and Progressive among the brands who teed up as sponsors. In a similar vein, Formula 1 launched a series of virtual Grand Prix races wherein pro drivers competed remotely via advanced gaming systems, with matches broadcast on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook. Across the pond, UK spectators were treated to a virtual Grand National horse race, while Corona Beer pulled off a stunning soccer moment for its ball-starved Mexican fans by airing a “match” comprised of footage from old games.

eSports Filled a Missing Void
With homebound viewers craving watchable content, eSports leagues around the world witnessed massive popularity spikes. In April, BMW signed on to sponsor five global eSports teams—Cloud (US0, Fnatic (UK), FunPlus Phoenix (China), G2 Sports (Germany) and T1 (South Korea)—creating content and social media campaigns centered around upcoming tournaments. Other big auto makers — including Subaru, Nissan and Ford — followed suit, while Chipotle live-streamed its April Challenger Series eSports gaming tournament on Twitch and YouTube, with $25,000 in prize winnings going toward Covid-19 relief efforts. More recently, Verizon inked a three-year deal to serve as the official services provider for Legends Champion Series and League of Legends, two of the most closely followed eSports brands. The breadth of this commitment could signal the maturing of eSports as well as enduring acclaim within a world typically defined by costly live sports sponsorships.

Eyes on the Prize
Nascar was the first major sport to make its triumphant US return, and when races resumed on May 17, a total of 6.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the highly anticipated event. No fans were present in the stands—but that empty bleachers space was covered by ads that totaled roughly $3.4 million. Combined with branded masks worn by drivers, sponsorships could come close to $140 million this season. Major League Baseball is eyeing a potential shortened season starting in July, followed by basketball a few weeks later. The NBA is in talks with Disney to hold games and practice sessions at a medically safe Orlando-based site. The National Hockey League anticipates a return for teams this summer and fall, and decision-makers aren’t ruling out the possibility of a 2020 Stanley Cup to be played in two hub cities. The US Open will go on as scheduled, with tennis pros facing off in Queens come September, sans spectators in the stands. Finally, the National Football League is steaming forward with its plans for a complete 2020 season, despite ongoing coronavirus concerns. Precise play details have yet to be worked out, but four top networks (CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN) have already stepped up to tout their upcoming pigskin programming.

Of course, zero fans in stands means no concessions sales, branded seating areas or crowd energy to rev up players—but that may not matter. After surviving three game-free months by creatively branching into the realms of competition and eSports, marketers and fans alike are excited about a second half of 2020 that includes live sports in any form at all.

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