The horse-racing championship, slated to run on Walt Disney's ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 on Oct. 24-25, expects to cut the number of ad units that run during the events by as much as 50% this year, said Peter Land, chief marketing officer for the Breeders' Cup. In 2007, about 20 units ran an hour on Friday and Saturday. This year, the event will have only 12 units per hour on Friday and 10 per hour on Saturday.
Familiarity breeds contempt
"No matter what kind of event you are watching and what kind of experience you are having, when you start to see the same spots over and over again, perhaps it loses its impact," he said.
"You've got nine hours of TV. It's a lot of commercial time over two days. To make it a better viewer experience, we looked at trying to limit the commercial interruptions." That said, many of the sponsors will be integrated into the telecast, Mr. Land said, and will be cited as the event proceeds.
Advertisers in the event are getting less commercial time as part of their sponsorship pacts, but none balked, Mr. Land said. "They didn't spend any more or less to have more or fewer spots on the air. Their investment level as specific to our broadcast stayed the same," he said, adding that advertisers understood they would receive more placement within the broadcast itself. Breeders' Cup sponsorship packages typically cost in excess of $500,000.
Sponsors include Sentient Flight Group, a private-aviation concern;, Emirates Airlines; Grey Goose vodka; and Bessemer Trust. In 2007, the capper of the event, the Breeders' Cup Classic, attracted approximately 1.32 million live-plus-same-day viewers to ESPN, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Select sports broadcasts -- centered on such pastimes as golf or tennis -- often bring in a more select coterie of advertisers seeking to get messages in front of consumers with above-average income. And it's definitely noticeable when the same four or five ads surface two or three times an hour.
Limiting commercial interruption is an idea that has gained traction in recent years. Nissan Motor Co. gained lots of buzz from its association with NBC's "Heroes," and in 2006 sponsored the first episode of the season with a reduced number of ads (the ads that did run were all from Nissan). Philips Electronics got attention in recent years for using a similar technique: buying all the ad time during CBS's "60 Minutes" and NBC's "NBC Nightly News," running fewer ads and giving some of the time back to the news programs so they could run more stories.
The Breeders' Cup isn't the first sports event to be shown with fewer ads than the norm. The Players golf tournament has run with limited commercials, starting in 2007. Meanwhile, the Masters golf tournament on CBS typically runs with limited commercial interruption, though the event dropped ads altogether in 2003 and 2004 when the Augusta National golf club that runs the event came under pressure for not having any female members.
Fox upped the ante this season by unveiling "Fringe," a sci-fi drama that purposely contained fewer ads and (for the most part) shorter ad breaks -- for an entire season of the series. Advertisers ate it up with a spoon, spending around $343,000 for a 30-second commercial during the program, according to an Ad Age survey of media buyers. Mr. Land of the Breeders' Cup said his clients purchase ad packages that include weaving them into the event itself, not just a group of 30-second spots.
At ESPN, executives are open to doing more with the idea, said Len DeLuca, senior VP-programming and acquisitions. The network will be broadcasting all Grand Slam tennis events next year, comprising about 400 hours of tennis. "We will look at limiting the amount of commercials," he said. Other sports, such as Nascar, football, basketball and baseball, are "very high-demand series which have a natural flow to them within their format" that works well with a regular commercial load. "Their ratings are very high, and they have very natural places to put commercials in," he added.
Clearly, use of the limited-commercial format looks to be limited itself unless a day comes when advertisers seek new measures for the effectiveness of their commercials.