Advertisers returning to baseball telecasts

Fox, TBS, ESPN, regional nets say MLB lineup is filling up

NEW YORK -- Despite a laggard economy and tepid ratings for the sport in 2009, advertisers have returned to Major League Baseball telecasts this season, and baseball's TV rights holders are close to selling out commercial time on their first few months of games, both at the national and local levels.

Fox is virtually sold out for April and May, buoyed by a doubling in automotive ad dollars and a 75% hike in financial advertising compared with this time last season for its Saturday afternoon games and two primetime contests. Turner has taken in 15%-20% more ad dollars than it did last year for its Sunday afternoon MLB games.

ESPN, which televises the most games nationally, also is pacing ahead of last year. Its telecast of the Home Run Derby the night before the All-Star Game is almost sold out. And MLB Network, in its second year, added 30 new advertisers this season to the 200 clients from its first year in business. MLB Net has taken in "three to four times more ad dollars" than 2009 at this point, said Bill Morningstar, executive vp ad sales.

While more ad dollars are rolling in, the national networks sales execs said they're also getting price increases of 5%-7%.

Advertiser interest extends beyond the national telecasts. Ray Warren, Comcast SportsNet's executive vp and chief revenue officer, who oversees ad sales for several regional sports networks, said ad revenue is tracking 75% ahead of last year. And ad revenue is about 50% higher than last season at Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, according to a network rep, with six clients renewing for this season in early November, a first for the network.

National ratings are unlikely to be a driver of interest. Last season saw Fox's ratings sink 10% for its Saturday afternoon games and ESPN down 8% for the 66 games it aired on Sundays and weekday nights. Only Turner's TBS enjoyed regular-season gains last year (up 27%), but off a much lower viewer base. The regional sports nets, as always, had their viewership more tied into how their local teams performed.

So what is driving the advertisers? Clients increasingly see live sports as family friendly, male-heavy and relatively DVR-proof. It helps that baseball, because of its long season and numerous telecasts both nationally and regionally, is cheaper than primetime entertainment fare. "Live sports have not suffered declines in ratings as those seen in primetime," said Kevin Collins, senior vp national broadcast at Initiative.

Moreover, many advertisers, which held back '09 upfront dollars from primetime and were conservative in first-quarter expenditures, find themselves with extra dollars to spend in the second half.

MLB has helped tighten inventory for its TV rights holders by encouraging all of its sponsors to advertise. The league also has added two new sponsors, Firestone and Scotts lawn care products, which are advertising on all networks carrying baseball, further tightening avails.

But advertisers who sat out or cut back last year are rounding the bases again. Mark Evans, Fox vp sports sales, said key financial advertisers like E*Trade, Edward Jones and Chase have returned in a big way, and "a lot of advertisers are buying the All-Star Game in July earlier, so there are a lot less avails than there were at this time last year."

Jon Diament, executive vp ad sales/marketing at Turner Sports, said in addition to auto and insurance money, TBS' Sunday MLB telecasts are thick with movie, wireless, travel and fast-food advertisers.

Ed Erhardt, president customer marketing and sales at ESPN, said another category "with juice" is consumer electronics, with Sony, Samsung and Panasonic all spending heavily this season to promote their new 3D sets.
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