Ad revenue sellout levels for the regional sports networks’ upcoming Major League Baseball season telecasts are expected to reach 80% by this Sunday’s opening day, up 5% over last season.
Craig Sloan, executive VP of Home Team Sports, a division of Fox Sports Media Group, sells the ads for the RSN telecasts for every MLB team except the Toronto Blue Jays. He says even more inventory could have been sold before the season’s first pitch.
“We want to have a decent amount of inventory left to sell in scatter with the regular season being six months long,” he says. RSNs might also be able to grab some political ad dollars at the tail end of the primaries and early in the presidential race, he adds.
There’s been a lot of angst about baseball ratings amid increased competition from rival sports, especially football. But the 2015 season was an auspicious one, as household ratings for the MLB regular season telecasts increased last season on most of the national networks.
In many local markets, viewership soared even higher, particularly in some of the markets where previously lower ranked teams showed a resurgence last year. With teams like the Kansas City Royals, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, among others, all having surprisingly strong seasons, viewers in those markets showed up in big numbers. And that’s at least part of what’s driving marketers to increase their RSN spending and drawing in some new advertisers for this season.
Fox Sports Kansas City, home regional network of the World Champion Kansas City Royals, averaged a household rating of 12.3 last season, up 84% from 2014. While SportsNet New York, regional TV home of the New York Mets, who lost to the Royals in the World Series, averaged a 2.6, up 61%.
Comcast Sports Network Chicago, home of the Chicago Cubs who lost to the Mets in the National League Championship final, averaged a 3.3 household rating, up 121% from the previous year. Another surprise high up finisher in the American League race, the Houston Astros, saw ratings on its regional network, Root Sports Southwest grow to a 2.2, an increase of 531%. Household ratings for another MLB playoff team, the St. Louis Cardinals on Fox Sports Midwest, hit a 10.0, up 27%.
Many of the regional sports networks are watched by passionate local viewers each night there is a game, and national advertisers are continuing to realize that this is a place where they need to be.
Among the national advertisers buying their first packages of advertising across the 29 MLB teams’ 28 RSNs (one of which carries both the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals) are Capital One, Hyundai, Quicken Loans and Mini Cooper, Sloan says.
Returning non-official MLB sponsors who are significantly increasing their ad spending for the upcoming season are USAA, Liberty Mutual and Cricket Wireless. Non-officials who have increased their spending the most this season include MillerCoors, Geico, DirecTV and Apple.
Among the official MLB sponsors, T-Mobile, Bank of America, Taco Bell and Chevrolet have significantly boosted their season-long investment across the RSNs.
Another reason for the increased spending by many national advertisers in the RSN MLB telecasts is to reach a more passionate and engaged fan that is also a more loyal customer of brands advertised during the telecasts.
Sloan says a survey by SmithGeiger finds that home team sports fans are two times more likely than primetime viewers to feel loyalty to a brand whose commercials are seen during an RSN game telecast. And home team fans are also twice as likely as primetime viewers to purchase a product advertisers during a game telecast.
The passion pitch is not just one made by Sloan and his sales staff, but one that is accepted by media buyers and their clients.
“The home team fan passion is very real,” says one sports buyer who has several clients in RSN telecasts but who did not want to be identified. “You get home team passion with national scale.”
The buyer says the “RSN story has resonated with many of our sports clients for many years.”
Some of his clients buy all 29 team telecasts, while others cherrypick. “The beauty of it is we can make more regional buys for some of our restaurant and retail clients,” he says.
Clients that buy all 29 markets get an aggregate rating guarantee for each game, similar to what CBS and Fox do when selling their Sunday NFL national ad packages—combine the ratings for all of their regional telecasts into one national ratings number.
Sloan says cost-per-thousand unit pricing overall is up about 6% compared to last year.
HTS is also selling for the second year in a row advertising in most of the baseball stadiums via a partnership and sales alliance with Access Sports Media. National advertisers can reach fans during the live games through the Access Network, which has concourse screens set up in MLB stadiums. The screens play live feeds during the games and pregame. And marketers can buy in-game and ads between innings.
Access Sports Media’s network is also measured by Nielsen.
Sloan says a new sales unit has also been set up this season to sell ads in highlight packages that HTS will distribute to local newspaper and TV station websites in each market.
The RSN produces each local game telecast and MLB cuts the game content into highlights from each night’s telecast. A company called Send To News then distributes video highlight packages to local media in each market. HTS sells ads that run pre-roll and overlay during the highlights that run on the websites.
Sloan says 69% of RSN MLB game viewers look for highlights online after games, so this is another ad revenue stream and also another opportunity for marketers.
The five highest household ratings last season were produced by Fox Sports Kansas City (Royals), Fox Sports Midwest (Cardinals), Root Pittsburgh (Pirates), Rox Sports Detroit (Tigers) and MASN (Baltimore Orioles). The five most-viewed RSNs were YES Network (Yankees), SNY (Mets), Fox Sports Midwest (Cards), NESN (Boston Red Sox) and CSN Chicago (Cubs.)
Other RSNs showing double-digit percentage of household ratings increases were Fox Sports Southwest (Texas Rangers), 34%; SportsNet LA (Dodgers), 25%; Fox Sports North (Minnesota Twins), 24%; Fox Sports San Diego (Padres), 22%; Fox Sports Arizona (Diamondbacks), 18%; MASN (Washington Nationals), 12%; and Root Sports (Pittsburgh Pirates), 10%.
Sloan acknowledges that there are also markets where ratings are down but says those audiences are still worth reaching and a large number of the advertisers who buy all 29 teams are including them.
As for the upcoming upfront, Sloan says HTS is ready to begin selling ad inventory for the 2017 MLB telecast season.
“In years past, only the NFL sold during the broadcast and cable upfront, but that has been changing,” Sloan says. “More brands are looking to make their MLB ad buys earlier. So we will be selling our 2017 RSN MLB inventory during the 2016 upfront.”