Left Coast Bias: Sports Is Still the Biggest Game in Town

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Let's play a game called “See if my bosses read my column.” Last Wednesday, I was holed up in a bar in the middle of the day.

Well, technically it was for work. I was in a Santa Monica pub watching European soccer's version of the Super Bowl with a couple of network execs who shall remain nameless.

Often when execs remain nameless in the media, it's because they are not authorized to speak on a certain topic. In this case, it's because I'm guessing they are not authorized to drink during the day.

But as we watched the match at the Cock N' Bull (yes, that is really its name…grow up), I kept thinking of the buzzing I have heard in the ether that television sports properties as an ad buy are softening. It's funny how we sometimes get so wrapped up in analytics that we forget common sense. If you are backing off your sports buys these days, chances are you'll regret it.

The match featured England's Manchester United and Spain's FC Barcelona. The Catalonian club won, which shocked me. Every time I visit Spain, I am awed by the fact that people get to nap for three hours every afternoon and eat dinner every night from about 10 until 2 in the morning. Then again, maybe that's why they won.

This being a night game in Rome meant it was a matinee here in the States. And that meant soccer zealots everywhere sneaking out to anyplace that had ESPN.

The Nielsens will show a big number for the network, and it will not include all the hooky-players in pubs around the nation. Or reflect the two different conversations I heard about the presenting sponsor, Heineken, in response to its ads.

It's crazy that I need to write a column sticking up for sports as a good buy, but there have been too many head-scratching comments in recent weeks. I know baseball ratings and NASCAR ratings are down, and the NFL didn't get the rights fee increases it wanted from CBS and Fox in contract extensions, but this is no long-term trend.

Look at broadcast television numbers in general. Suddenly, these falloffs don't seem so eye-catching. Plus, plenty of properties are up. The NBA is enjoying one of its best playoffs in years, and even the NHL is seeing postseason bumps.

While television is bleeding younger viewers who spend all their time on Twitter and howtopissoffyourparents.com, sports is still bringing in new viewers. My 3-year-old can already pick out big-name current stars like golf's Tiger Woods and Major League Baseball's Joe Mauer, as well as stars of the past, like that former Red Sox slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Heck, when my kid plays baseball, he even taps his bat on the plate like Manny Ramirez (I had to explain Manny's 50-game drug suspension by saying he is in “time out” because he didn't listen).

And when a duck walks across the screen, he loves to yell out “Aflac!” in Pavlovian fashion. He'll be in diapers until he's 8 years old, but he knows the name of an insurance company. I'm so proud.

The hundreds of people in that pub reminded me that all this talk about a softening sports marketplace is simply the latest version of short-term thinking in the midst of a recession. Even as TV continues to shed viewers to other forms of entertainment, sports remains one thing that's got plenty of game.

E-mail comments to
ben.grossman@reedbusiness.com

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