Ad Market Strong as TBS, Fox Suit Up for MLB Postseason

New York, L.A. Skew Favors Turner Net

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Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.
Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. Credit: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg News
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"It is designed to break your heart," A. Bartlett Giamatti famously said of baseball, noting that after the delirium of summer fades, the sport "stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." And while the late MLB commissioner was graced with the soul of a poet, his sentiments may strike baseball broadcast partners Fox and TBS as more than a little precious.

Despite baseball's well-documented slide into senescence -- the median age of fans who tuned into last year's World Series was a record high 55.6 years, hurdling the oldest relevant TV demographic -- the Fall Classic remains one of TV's last true in-season reach vehicles. If Fox is fortunate enough to host a seven-game World Series, the deciding contest should put up ratings that are in line with those notched by NBC's "Sunday Night Football."

But before we start counting chickens (or Cardinals or Blue Jays), there is the matter of the playoffs. There's no disputing that TBS got the better draw this year, as its coverage of the two National League Division Series features the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, teams representing the country's two largest media markets. And now that Chicago got past mid-tier Pittsburgh (No. 23) in Wednesday's wild card game, the representative of the No. 3 DMA will go on to face St. Louis (No. 21). Best case scenario, the Mets and Cubbies square off in the National League Championship Series, whereupon the fate of the last great sports curse would hang in the balance.

Over in the American League, the elimination of the New York Yankees on Tuesday night may have taken some of the cork out of Fox's bats. (Market size matters; the rise of regional sports networks has transformed the National Pastime into something of a Hyperlocal Enthusiasm.) Representing the No. 5 Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, the Texas Rangers take on the Toronto Blue Jays, a franchise which obviously has no U.S. market designation. (For what it's worth, Toronto-adjacent Buffalo, N.Y. is No. 55.) In the other Division Series, Yankee-killer Houston (No. 10) looks to get past year's ALCS champ Kansas City (No. 33).

For its part, TBS is effectively sold out of its guaranteed NLDS and NLCS inventory; the Turner net will head back into sale for any of the three series that avoids a sweep. "We've never been sold out quicker," said Turner Sports exec VP Jon Diament. "Postseason sports is an incredibly sought-after opportunity, and October is a particularly attractive period for many advertisers, as it's the start of their biggest sales quarter."

Mr. Diament projects TBS's postseason MLB revenue will be up 10% versus last year, with endemic categories like auto, insurance, telecom, QSR/casual dining and financial services leading the way. But new business is also pouring in, particularly from the technology sector. Among the tech companies that will leverage the playoffs as a launch pad for new brand campaigns are Amazon, Google and Hulu.

T-Mobile is the presenting sponsor of TBS's NLDS coverage, while ExxonMobil will present the NLCS telecasts. Both sponsors will also back live streaming of their respective series on TBS.com and the Watch TBS app.

Meanwhile, automakers have snapped up plum positions leading into and out of each TBS postseason telecast, with Chrysler warming up the network's pre-game show and Ford's Lincoln Motor Company handling post-game duties.

While it may be slightly hyperbolic to suggest that marquee sports are keeping TV out of the alms house, postseason baseball certainly does tick off a lot of boxes on marketers' checklists. At two minutes per half-inning, MLB ad pods are uncluttered and don't invite any inordinate ad avoidance. Barring a lot of metronomic repetition, live programming tends to keep viewers engaged with the commercial content, and for all the premiums associated with buying playoff baseball, it's still a damn sight cheaper than forking over $600,000 for a 30-second slice of a Sunday NFL broadcast.

"It really comes down to supply and demand," Mr. Diament said. "The inventory is extremely limited, so you've got to get in early. And a lot of these nights on our schedule, we're literally the only game in town."

Reach is also a factor. Despite hosting an ALCS sweep featuring the smallest market pairing in history (KC and Baltimore), TBS last fall still managed to deliver its highest ratings since 2010. And if the first two weeks of the new broadcast season are any indication, high-impact opportunities are few and far between.

TBS's NLDS coverage begins with a Friday night doubleheader: Chicago heads to St. Louis to take on the Cards; immediately after that contest is decided, Game 1 of the Mets-Dodgers series will begin in Los Angeles.

Speaking of ad-supported cable nets, this year marks the second time Fox will air MLB playoff games on FS1, which put up big numbers in its inaugural run. The upstart FS1 has at least four ALDS games locked up, with more in the wings should either or both best-of-five-game series sidestep a sweep. (Fox's ALCS schedule has yet to be determined.)

FS1's ALDS coverage kicks off tonight with a Rangers-Jays/Astros-Royals doubleheader.

Fox says it is pacing 10% to 15% ahead of last season's MLB sales, with strong demand coming from all quarters of the marketplace. Among the biggest backers of Fox's postseason coverage include official MLB sponsors Anheuser-Busch InBev, Taco Bell, General Motors and MasterCard. Apple, the Hartford and the ubiquitous DraftKings are also in the mix.

Although DraftKings may have courted some unwanted regulatory scrutiny in light of an employee's alleged rooking of the system to win $350,000 at rival DFS player FanDuel, the company's MLB playoffs investment appears to be secure. Five DraftKings spots have aired on FS1 Wednesday alone.

DraftKings is an official partner of MLB, which owns an equity stake in the business.

As Fox gears up for October baseball, its best chances for a ratings grand slam may lie in an all-Texas ALCS and a subsequent meetup between the Rangers and either the Mets, Dodgers or Cubs. The path ahead is fraught with peril; teams representing tiny markets and non-competitive matchups can turn the World Series into an absolute washout.

Case in point: In 2012, San Francisco's joyless sweep of Detroit dealt a crushing blow to Fox's bottom line. According to Kantar Media, the four-game drubbing cost the network as much as $115.8 million in potential ad sales revenue.

For all the inherent risks of buying time in an increasingly local-oriented showcase that almost demands that each series goes the distance, clients are still willing to risk the occasional autumn doldrums in order to carve out some time with baseball's live, engaged audience.

According to media buyers who have invested in the 2015 World Series, the average unit cost of a 30-second in-game spot is around $545,000 a pop. (Fox does not disclose its ad rates, saying only that its ad rates are up significantly versus last year's prices.)

Presenting sponsors and pre- and post-game sponsors for the ALCS, ALDS and World Series have not been made public.

While Fox obviously would be over the moon were the World Series to require the maximum number of games -- Game 7 of last year's Royals-Giants showdown averaged 23.5 million viewers and a 13.7 household rating, nearly doubling the Game 1 deliveries -- a full complement of broadcasts would also prove to be an inconvenience for the network's most visible non-sports property. As it happens, Game 2 and Game 7 of this year's title tilt are scheduled for successive Wednesday evenings, which would sideline "Empire" for two straight weeks.