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It's Not Like It's the NFL: Advertisers Shrug at NBA Lockout

Ad Spending on the NBA Is Back-Loaded to the Late Season Anyway

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LeBron James' move to the Miami Heat last season contributed to record ratings , but the NBA risks losing momentum as the lockout drags on.
LeBron James' move to the Miami Heat last season contributed to record ratings , but the NBA risks losing momentum as the lockout drags on. Credit: AP

If today's deadline to resolve the NBA lockout lapses without a deal and the prospect of a lost season suddenly looms very large, advertisers are more likely to shrug than panic.

That's a marked contrast to the situation earlier this year when it was NFL games on the chopping block. A protracted NFL lockout would have sent advertisers scrambling to make up the ratings they'd lose without America's most popular and ubiquitous sport, but there are plenty of ways to reach the young, male demographic that tunes in for professional basketball games.

"Advertisers are somewhat concerned, but it's much easier to plan around the lack of an NBA schedule than the lack of an NFL schedule," said GroupM chief investment officer Rino Scanzoni. "Those viewers can be recaptured in other programs."

November's games have already been lost, but ad spending on the NBA is heavily back-loaded to the second half of the season and the playoffs, when ratings and fan interest surge. ESPN is shifting early-season ad dollars into its menu of college football and basketball games, while Turner, whose TNT broadcasts were set to add Shaquille O' Neal as a commentator this season, is eyeing avenues such as TBS and Adult Swim programming to keep the ad spending in-house.

"Turner has a diverse portfolio of programming and platforms to provide our advertising partners with a broad range of options for their distinct brand message," Turner spokesman Sal Petruzzi said. "Turner Sports is working together with our advertising partners on alternative programming options which reach the NBA-targeted demos across the company's portfolio of brands, programs and platforms, including TBS, Adult Swim, truTV, and Conan."

And so far, there's no indication that advertisers are running much for the hills.

"There's not that many people lying awake at night worrying about this," said Peter Farnsworth, a former NBA executive who heads sports marketer Foxrock Partners and advises league advertisers. "With the NFL, people would have been rushing Capitol Hill."

The relative calm also reflects advertisers and ad buyers' continued optimism that at least half the season will be savaged -- despite today's deadline. The players' union took a step in that direction Tuesday by signaling they'd accept the owners' offer of a 50-50 revenue split in exchange for concessions on free agency restrictions. NBA Commissioner David Stern had set a 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline for players to accept the offer before it gets pulled and replaced with something worse. Players are mulling dissolving the union, which could ultimately land the battle in court.

While major sponsors with integrated league-branding deals and regional sports networks are more exposed to a long lockout, most advertisers have more flexibility, especially early in the season.

"Right now there's a lot of other content to purchase," said John Brody, a Wasserman Media Group principal and former Boston Celtics CMO. "There are other places you can get those ratings points back."

TV advertising for NBA games on ESPN, TNT and ABC exceeded $600 million last season, according to an Ad Age DataCenter analysis of measured media data from Kantar Media. About two-thirds of the sum was spent after the All-Star break, with about half of that spent just during the playoffs. Some of the biggest advertisers include Kia Motors, Taco Bell and T-Mobile.

"The NBA just pales in comparison to the NFL, so that 's why we're seeing a disparity in the reaction to a potential NBA lockout vs. an NFL lockout," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media. "You're not going to really feel the loss of the NBA until the Super Bowl is over."

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