Squad goals: Advertisers clamor for World Cup inventory

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Advertisers play footsie, too
Advertisers play footsie, too Credit: Photo by VI Images via Getty Images

The 2018 FIFA World Cup is set to kick off Thursday in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, and despite a no-show by the U.S. national team, stateside broadcasters Fox and Telemundo say demand for ad inventory has been robust.

While the rules of soccer don't allow for the steady drip of commercial breaks that punctuate other televised sporting events, sponsorship entitlements and the available real estate in the pregame, postgame and halftime shows are expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in ad sales revenue for the networks. Much of that inventory is already spoken for, as the 48 matches that comprise the initial Group Stage of the tournament are sold out, while only a handful of spots in the eight Knockout Round matches remain up for grabs.

An uncluttered ad environment and the deathless allure of live sports have made the World Cup a must-buy for usual suspects (and official FIFA partners) like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Adidas. Financial services, tech and movie money is also pouring in; according to media buyers, a good deal of studio investment that originally had been earmarked for an extended NBA Finals run was diverted to the soccer tournament.

Fox eyes a record haul

"We think this will be the biggest, most lucrative World Cup to air on English-language TV," says Mike Petruzzi, senior VP of ad sales, Fox Sports Media Group. While Fox did not offer a ballpark estimate for how much revenue it expects to rake in over the course of the month-long tourney, its broadcast-heavy schedule alone should go a long way toward helping it top ESPN/ABC's take in 2014.

According to Kantar Media, the Disney-owned networks pulled in $187 million in ad sales four years ago in Brazil, thanks in part to a schedule that placed 10 matches on ABC, with the remainder appearing on cable nets ESPN or ESPN2. By way of comparison, Fox will air no fewer than 38 matches on its flagship broadcast net, which reaches nearly 30 million more households than its cable sibling FS1.

Network TV's more expansive reach allows Petruzzi and his team to command a higher rate for inventory in the matches that will air on Fox, a slate that includes the much-anticipated Iberian Peninsula showdown between Portugal and Spain (June 15), a David-and-Goliath clash between Lionel Messi's Argentina and scrappy underdogs Iceland (June 16) and the Premier League All-Star Game that is England-Belgium (June 28).

As much as Fox and Telemundo would both love to tinker with soccer's legacy broadcast format—each 45-minute half is given over to continuous play, and there are no breaks for ads, injuries or any other interruptions in the action—FIFA bylaws do not allow for any deviation from the standard presentation. In other words, don't expect to see either network incorporate half-screen ad breaks or six-second custom creative at any time the ball is in play.

"We would have loved to run split-screen ads, but FIFA is very church and state with that," Petruzzi says. "It's very prohibitive in terms of the sort of things we can do during the actual game."

Financial services, movies storm the pitch

Petruzzi says that while Microsoft, a key spender in 2014, had decided to sit out this World Cup, Amazon and Google "have come up big in supporting roles." Also repping the tech category is first-time World Cup advertiser Slack, which has "a significant buy in place," according to Petruzzi. Meanwhile, financial services brands buying time in Fox's coverage of the tournament include E-Trade, Quicken Loans, SoFi and Wells Fargo, which also happens to be the sponsor of Team Mexico.

Among the studio partnerships Fox has lined up are a Group Stage deal with Universal Pictures' "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" and an upcoming execution with Amazon Studios' espionage thriller "Jack Ryan." Set to open June 22, the latest release in the "Jurassic Park" franchise will be featured prominently during Fox's broadcast of the Portugal-Spain match, while Amazon's back-of-the-tournament buy sets up its John Krasinski popcorn flick, which will be available to stream starting August 31.

As Ad Age reported last fall, Verizon and Volkswagen have dibs over two of the marquee entitlements, as the phone company has signed on to sponsor the halftime show while the automaker is backing the postgame coverage. Also in the mix is Adidas, which will serve as the presenting sponsor of each of the Group Stage matches. (As 100 percent of Adidas' World Cup buys are devoted to English-language TV, this particular arrangement is exclusive to Fox/FS1.) Bookending each day's coverage are McDonald's, which will own the first segment of the morning show "FIFA World Cup Live" and Wells Fargo, sponsor of the nightly highlights/wrap-up program "FIFA World Cup Tonight."

Of course, the U.S. team's inability to earn a place in this World Cup took some of the wind out of Fox's sails, although Petruzzi mostly downplayed the significance of that failure. "We had to change our strategy a little bit," he says. "When the U.S. was eliminated, we obviously had those games pegged at a premium from a ratings and pricing perspective, and so we had to make adjustments there."

The U.S. team turfed out in October, in a 2-1 loss to a lowly Trinidad and Tobago side. In failing to secure a berth in the tourney, the U.S. robbed Fox of at least three games that were almost certain to deliver massive audiences. Back in 2014, ESPN scared up an NBA Finals-sized crowd of 18.2 million viewers with its coverage of Clint Dempsey and Co.'s near-upset of mighty Portugal, a tally that included 9 million members of the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demo.

Eyes on the prize

If Fox had to scramble to adjust for the absence of the home team, the AWOL U.S. squad doesn't seem to have had a discernible impact on Telemundo's strategy. The big draw for NBCUniversal's Spanish-language network is Mexico, which on June 17 promises to put up big ratings against defending champs Germany.

Indeed, viewers who speak Spanish and bilingual soccer enthusiasts tend to hang on Mexico's every move; the team's last-minute loss to the Netherlands in the 2014 tourney scored former rights holder Univision a record 10.4 million viewers. And with Mexico an odds-on favorite to advance out of the Group Stage, Telemundo is all but assured of at least four broadcasts featuring El Tri.

Also helping Telemundo's sales efforts are the presence of perennial international threats Brazil and Argentina, as well as familiar faces like Mexico's CONCACAF counterparts Costa Rica and Panama.

"The NBCUniversal Hispanic Group has virtually fulfilled its inventory and revenue goals for the 2018 FIFA World Cup," says Laura Molen, executive VP, lifestyle and Hispanic advertising sales, NBCUniversal. "Acknowledging that our clients continue to look for ways to partner with the program, we will continue to develop additional opportunities for advertisers to be a part of the games throughout the entire tournament."

NBCU's stated revenue goal headed into the World Cup was $225 million. According to Kantar Media estimates, Univision generated some $336 million in ad sales revenue during the 2014 World Cup.

Coca-Cola will serve as the official post-game sponsor of Telemundo's World Cup broadcasts, while Sprint has suited up as the official halftime sponsor. The telecom also will offer additional content via the Telemundo Deportes En Vivo app. Volkswagen, which will have a brand presence within live match coverage on the linear TV feed and via the Telemundo Deportes live streams, also will serve as the presenting sponsor of the network's primetime coverage.

Along with endemic categories like auto and soft drinks, Telemundo viewers can also expect to see ads for Netflix and YouTube TV airing throughout the tourney, and NBCU says that its business with the leading movie studios has been brisk. Among the popcorn flicks set to drop this summer are Sony Pictures' "Superfly" reboot, Pixar's "The Incredibles 2," Marvel's "Ant-Man and the Wasp" and Paramount Pictures' typographically unsettling "Mission: Impossible - Fallout."

Studios are a particularly apt fit for Telemundo. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, Hispanics are among the country's most enthusiastic moviegoers, accounting for as much as one-quarter of the audience for new releases.

Guarantees and geography

Because NBCU first went to market with the World Cup back in June 2016, or prior to the emergence of its Total Audience Delivery currency, Telemundo's ratings guarantees will for the most part be pegged against traditional household ratings. Digital audience guarantees have been worked out apart from the TV arrangements. While NBCU did not disclose the precise ratings guarantees it has extended to its World Cup clients, its TV audience estimates are based on the results for 2006 and 2010 tournaments on Univision—the latter of which delivered 2.37 million viewers and a 1.5 household rating.

Given that the World Cup is to be held halfway around the world in Russia, the ratings guarantees are lower than they were for the 2014 tournament, which was hosted by Brazil. Moscow lies eight hours ahead of New York and nearly a half-day in front of Los Angeles, so a match that kicks off at 4 p.m. local time would begin at 8 a.m. on the east coast and 5 a.m. in L.A. Earning big ratings at that time of day isn't quite as automatic as sinking a penalty kick.

That said, both Fox and Telemundo expect that streaming impressions and digital ad sales revenue will help counteract whatever negative impact the time lag has on the linear TV ratings.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off Thursday at 11 a.m. EST, as host nation Russia leads off against the Green Falcons of Saudi Arabia.

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