It’s been three weeks since the en masse cancellation of every major sports league left TV in “uncharted territory,” with networks and advertisers scrambling to navigate the ad sales fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it’s still far from certain when sports—or the rest of the economy—will be able to safely resume, Fox Sports has started working with agencies to help them and their clients prepare and plan for the return of MLB, Nascar, NFL and its other live sports.
This week, Fox Sports execs—including CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks, evp of sports sales Seth Winter and evp and head of strategy and analytics Michael Mulvihill—participated in hour-long video conferences with six key agency partners, including GroupM, Omnicom and IPG. During the Zoom chats, the execs discussed the conversations they’ve been having with the leagues, shared various scenarios for when sports could return and fielded questions about the sports marketplace.
“We want to be at the forefront of helping the industry recover. This was not about selling, it was all about partnership and long-term view,” Winter said. “As cliche as this may sound, we all exist within the same ecosystem, and if one part of it is failing, we’re all failing.”
The meetings were held as an alternative to the usual Fox Sports roadshows that take place for clients in March and early April but had to be canceled this year due to the coronavirus. Initially, Dan Donnelly, svp of ad sales marketing, had planned to create a video instead, until Shanks suggested the virtual town hall format.
During discussions with clients over the past three weeks, Winter said, it was apparent that agencies “all want to start planning for the future, but they had a dearth of information” when it came to the state of play among the various sports leagues and when games might resume.
“They’re looking to us to help bring some information that they can bring to their clients and in turn start planning for third and fourth quarters,” Winter said.
During the Q&A, execs ran through various scenarios as to what might happen as the leagues start up and discussed scheduling plans not only for Fox Sports but the broader sports marketplace.
“We shared confidentially as much as we know, but we did it in a way that said, look, these are the scenarios that we see playing out and this is what you might want to consider planning for,” said Winter, nothing that the situation continues to change on a daily or weekly basis.
For now, the NFL and college football schedules remain intact for the fall. As for baseball, Fox hopes to “get as many games on as possible” whenever the season resumes and will potentially air games more frequently than planned “to make up for some of the lost time,” Winter said. Fox Sports is also looking to broadcast all the remaining Nascar races.
“Several of our partners suggested that once we could give them some certainty around the sports schedule, they could go back to their clients and start planning for late third and fourth quarter,” Winter said. “They recognize that sports is going to be a vital part of the restoration of the advertising marketplace.”
For buyers, “the presentation underscored that live sports is by no means a light switch that can easily be turned on and off. The scheduling, production, programming and broadcasting of live events is an intricate dance for every collegiate and professional season, including the news and events that surround them. Trying to plan all of this for an uncertain future is something that is taking a tremendous amount of communication, scenario building and dedicated work streams,” said Jeremy Carey, managing director of Optimum Sports, Omnicom’s sports media and marketing division.
“There is no question that sports will play a major role in the global healing process. We are seeing the anticipation continue to build,” Carey said. “We appreciated the partnership and open dialogue with Fox as we navigate through this on behalf of our clients.”
David Campanelli, co-chief investment officer, Horizon Media, called the conference “good and appreciated,” adding that “obviously no one knows 100% what’s to come, but they did lay out a lot of the scenario planning being done.”
The virtual town hall “definitely helps us counsel clients and do our scenario planning for third quarter and especially fourth quarter around NFL,” Campanelli said. “It does seem like networks and leagues are working together well—network to network and networks to leagues—to try and figure out how all the delayed sports can play out in fourth quarter, assuming things return to normal.”
Winter expects to hold another round of video conferences with agencies in the next month or so to update them on the state of the sports industry at that point.
With such an uncertainly around the upfront marketplace this season, especially if entertainment production can’t resume in a timely manner, leaving the content pipeline sparse, agencies “are looking to us for guidance,” Winter said.
“I think the sports scheduling will be the catalyst for a very different upfront process,” he said. “We’re looking at sports as a way to plug whatever holes might exist in the entertainment schedule.”