When upfront time rolls around, sports programming is likely to be in a league of its own.
While other genres are being blitzed by DVRs, or squeezed by over-the-top alternatives, interest in sports among those who watch television and those who buy advertising time continues to grow. The prime example is the Super Bowl, which set records for viewership earlier this month on TV, took up bandwidth online and filled social media channels.
"People continue to see the benefits of sports and what they deliver from both a ratings and an engagement standpoint," says Sam Sussman, senior VP and media director at Starcom USA, a leading media buyer.
At ESPN, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the sports spike, the cheering is even louder.
"It is clear that sports is at the top of the food chain," says Ed Erhardt, president, ESPN global customer marketing and sales.
At last year's upfront, there was a bit of an overhang because of the NFL lockout, which threatened the season. A settlement was reached before any regular-season games were missed and ad revenue and ratings appeared unaffected by the labor wrangling. Though other parts of the market appear to have cooled somewhat from last year's red-hot upfront market, sports is likely to remain strong.
"I think that sports is going to fare very well in the upfront because the numbers tell the story," Erhardt says. "I think that advertisers are going to continue to shift their dollars towards live programming that rates, and that's basically what's happening with sports. So my guess is that those brands that have sports, some more than others, are going to fare pretty well."
For several years, ESPN has held an upfront event right in the middle of broadcast week to ensure that its sports pitch gets attention while the broadcasters' primetime schedules are being announced.
ESPN will be approaching the TV market not simply as a cable giant, but as a video polyglot.
"We're going to go to the marketplace talking about video, short and long form. And as far as the screen, it's not about the screen," says Erhardt, explaining that games are long form, while clips and commentary make up the short-form category.
Some advertisers buy online video as part of their television packages. In other cases, digital video represents pure incremental revenue opportunities.
For example, ESPN now sells a breaking-news package of video highlights. Advertisers can buy the package by sport or by daypart if they wish. And ESPN has recently created an ad system that can coordinate content and spots online and on all forms of mobile devices including the leading brands of smart phones.
"That provides the opportunity to buy a male audience, hard to reach, with scale across a lot of screens, so that's a big part of our story," Erhardt says.
Another part of the story is measurement, where ESPN is talking up the idea of average minute audience, a metric that can be used on any video screen.
The big sport in the upfront as always will be NFL football. How much more can the networks charge to advertise on NFL games? "I don't know. The marketplace will make that determination," says Erhardt. "The NFL's had an extraordinary year and I think that will continue to be reflected in the pricing and the volume and the demand for all things NFL both live games and everything around those games too."
Starcom's Sussman notes that the big news in football is there will be more games on the schedule this year. "You've got the NFL Network adding five games. You've got the Thanksgiving game moving off NFL Network and onto NBC. So those are pretty decent changes that when we look at supply out there in the marketplace, they're adding [gross rating points] there, which again the NFL has got a marketplace unto its own, but that's obviously something we're keeping an eye on in terms of helping to shape up from an upfront standpoint," he says.
CBS, Fox and NBC will also be selling football; other sports, including college football, the NBA and NASCAR will be part of the mix. According to Sussman, a hot newcomer could be the UFC, now on Fox, FX and Fuel as part of a $700 million deal with News Corp. "They've had some success so far with their first two fights on Fox. So that's an interesting sport to watch," he says.