Advertisers Paying Up for World Series Time

Small-Market Teams Could Yield Smaller Ratings

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The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate advancing to the National League Championship Series.
The St. Louis Cardinals celebrate advancing to the National League Championship Series. Credit: Fox

Despite baseball audiences' well-documented slide into relative senescence -- the median age of MLB viewers is 54 years, ancient by TV standards -- the World Series remains one of the last truly significant broadcast events on the calendar. Should the Fall Classic extend to a seventh game, you're looking at least a 15.0 household rating, where a ratings point equals 1% of all TV households -- NFL numbers, essentially.

Blowouts and teams from tiny markets can turn the World Series into a demolition derby, for advertisers and networks alike: The Giants' sweep of Detroit in 2012 cost Fox as much as $115.8 million in potential ad sales, according to Kantar Media. But marketers 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, 30-second spots during the upcoming World Series are pricing at around $520,000 a pop, up slightly versus last year. Fox does not disclose its ad rates, but confirmed that it has increased ad rates by mid-single digit percentages. Demand is consistent with historical levels, said Neil Mulcahy, exec VP, Fox Sports ad sales, adding that the National League Championship Series and World Series are 85% sold out.

Fans can expect to see a lot of familiar brands this October, as GM's Chevrolet marque is returning as the pre- and post-game sponsor, while Taco Bell is back as the presenter of the starting lineups. Usual suspects (and official MLB sponsors) Bank of America, MasterCard and T-Mobile will also appear in the World Series, which starts on Tuesday, Oct. 21.

Tech and phone marketers seem more prominent than last year, said Mike Falco, VP-Fox Sports ad sales. "It certainly doesn't hurt that there are so many new gadgets hitting the market," Mr. Falco said.

Of course, before the World Series lineup cards can be filled out, a National League pennant winner has to be identified. The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants will meet Saturday night in Game 1 of the NLCS on Fox. From that point on, the series changes venues, as the upstart cable net Fox Sports 1 takes over Games 2 through 5 and, if necessary, Game 7.

Pricing the FS1 playoff games and setting ratings guarantees wasn't exactly a routine exercise in tinkering with the rate card, as this fall marks the startup net's inaugural postseason run. The precedent established by TBS, where the American League Championship series starts Friday, has helped set the parameters.

"The playoffs have been sold on cable networks forever, so we have a pretty good idea about what the marketplace is willing to pay," Mr. Mulcahy said. "Obviously, we're going to try to get more for our inventory … but it becomes a negotiation."

Buyers said the World Series rates are fair, given the levels of engagement and the DVR-proof environment provided by big-ticket live sports. "It's an older audience, sure, but it's also an audience that's going to see my clients' spots," said one buyer. "I could double- and triple-down on a handful of scripted shows and still not get the same [impressions], thanks to all the time-shifting that's going on."

And it's not as if there's an embarrassment of ratings riches on the rest of the broadcast grid. Two weeks into the 2014-15 TV season, NBC is leading the pack with a 2.8 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds, according to Nielsen, the sort of result that would have led to a series of very public exsanguinations during the "Must-See TV" era.

If the ratings for the early National League Division Series telecasts are any indication, October baseball will be very good for FS1. Per Nielsen, Game 1 of the Dodgers-Cards series drew 3.6 million viewers, or 20 times what the network averaged in the third quarter.

The best-case scenario for Fox is a World Series pitting the Giants against the Baltimore Orioles, given the size of the markets represented and the not inconsiderable human-interest angle. The Bay Area is the nation's No. 6 market, and while Baltimore is much smaller (26th), the Orioles also happen to be a wildly entertaining East Coast club looking to slake a 31-year dry spell.

On the other end of the spectrum, an all-Mizzou meeting between Kansas City (No. 31) and St. Louis (No. 21) could prove to be of limited interest, given baseball's pervasive coastal bias. That said, St. Louis tends to keep things interesting; aside from a sweep in 2004, the average duration of the team's four World Series appearances since 2000 is six games. It lost the Series to the Boston Red Sox last year, four games to two.

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