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    Sports Buying Game for Phoenix TV

    Tuesday, February 7th… a relatively normal day; up at 5am, gym, full days’ work and home around 6:30 that evening put me in front of a TV with LSU getting stomped by Kentucky on ESPN. I skipped over to the PAC12 network to find the Washington State Cougars hosting a talented USC team in what I think we could all characterize as a marginal game. Regardless, I settled in.

    What transpired was unsettling. Not the game mind you, the commercial breaks in the game. Some 20 years of television ad sales experience has given me insider’s knowledge of break structures. That makes it easy for me to watch a game and tell you if it’s an affiliate or network break. This game was almost entirely unsold. Cox (affiliate) ran promotional inventory and the PAC12 (network) ran nothing but PI inventory. PI stands for “per inquiry” meaning that they run the commercial for little or nothing and then get paid based on how much revenue the ad generates over a given time.

    The lone exception in the game was a GCU commercial. I wonder out loud what they paid for that.

    I had noticed this before; large swaths of unsold inventory in live sporting events. It’s not just college basketball on the PAC12 network. For example, when a Mor Furniture ad runs in an NBA game on TNT, don’t think for a second they ponied up to the market cost per point for that. There are probably a dozen or so ‘marker accounts’ in Phoenix television media buying that signify that inventory wasn’t sold.

    In general terms, I think that our local sports TV inventory is grossly undersold or difficult to purchase for local advertisers.

    I would point to Fox Sports Arizona as doing the best job of not only selling their inventory but also properly using unsold inventory. Anything not sold is used for promotion or making up points for posts. The Fox regional model is driven nationally with a handful of local advertisers helping to fill the inventory gaps. Candidly, it’s a pretty good model that has the national rep firm driving sellouts and rate.

    Local broadcast stations are very limited on the avails they have to sell. You’ll see automotive and gaming as the primary purchasers of the few commercials they have in big-ticket programming like NFL football and PGA golf. You don’t see a lot of inventory for local direct clients and what inventory there is available can be pricey.

    I give big kudos to Cox Media for adding Direct TV to help bolster their waning penetration numbers. In my opinion, cable is the place to be for local sports advertising. It’s important to note that break structures don’t match with all of their platforms which lead to extra zoned avails that often times go unsold. For some time now Cox has struggled to sell their sports inventory simply based on the vast amount of overall avails it has. They literally fall victim to their own advantage.

    With all that being said, don’t think that there are boatloads of deals to be had through sports buying. Stations recognize the value of this genre of programming and aren’t readily compromising on rates. The sports point in this market is typically 30-40% higher than the average market CPP. Sports are almost always watched live with less than 10% of sports programming being time-shifted. For purposes of comparison, network shows in primetime are typically time-shifted or watched alternately upwards of 40% of the time.

    Buying sports television advertising is not for the faint hearted. Even the most seasoned media buyer has to come to terms with over-priced inventory that is often times undersold. Generating the needed frequency for consumer response gets expensive. My advice to you is to get professional help. If not from me, from someone who knows the industry, knows the break structures and understands the game … and I’m not talking about the one you’re watching.

    About the author: Ed Olsen is the CEO of Line Drive Sports Marketing. He is a former adjunct professor at Arizona State University and has lots of opinions on all things sports.

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