Oct 25 2023
Ben Larrison

Going Deep on Live Sports Advertising Opportunities


Picture this: The weekend is finally here, it’s game time, and you’ve got your homemade nachos all set to go (your secret ingredient: home-pickled jalapenos!). You plop down on the couch, crack open your first beer, turn on the big screen and...shoot. Where’s the game? Didn’t you read something about Amazon securing the rights for this season? No wait, that was Peacock...or was it Apple TV+? ESPN+? Maybe TBS? Or TNT? One of the Ts? Fox? CBS? Hulu? YouTube TV? Why can’t you find it?! Was there ever even a game today? THE NACHOS ARE GETTING COLD!

Tuning in to live sports used to be so simple. And we’re not even talking about 50+ years ago, when that meant “going to the game” or “turning on the radio” for 95% of your live sports consumption. As recently as the 2000s, when it came to sports broadcasts, there were the major networks, ESPN, an occasional game on one of the Turner channels, and that pretty much was it.

Today, sports leagues are scattering their broadcast rights around like digital Johnny Appleseeds, adding to an already-complex CTV and streaming video environment and creating new challenges for advertisers and consumers alike. The clear reason for this shift? Money—big money. US sports TV and streaming rights will hit $25.6 billion this year and are projected to climb to nearly $30 billion next year—nearly double what they were just nine years earlier. All this has taken place in the face of (or, perhaps, helped fuel) cord cutting that drives essential revenue away from traditional broadcasters and into the pockets of streaming services.

In light of these dramatic shifts, how can digital advertisers effectively reach and connect with sports fans? And is navigating the disparate live sports landscape worth all the trouble? (Spoiler alert: yes, yes it is!) Read on to learn all about it.

The Sports Broadcast Landscape is Changing

First off, let’s look at some of those new (or, at least, new-ish) sports broadcast partnerships, an area that’s seen some significant departures from the “old normal” in recent years: 

  • The NFL made its first major move into the streaming world, first striking an agreement with Amazon that will put its Thursday Night Football package exclusively on Prime Video for the next decade, and then reaching a deal with Google to place the league's highly-coveted NFL Sunday Ticket package exclusively on YouTube TV.
  • Major League Baseball (MLB) also dove headfirst into the streaming wars with a new slate of Friday night games available only on Apple TV+ (fittingly titled Friday Night Baseball) and a weekly Sunday morning matchup on NBCUniversal’s Peacock.
  • Major League Soccer (MLS) joined MLB over on Apple TV+, granting exclusive global broadcast rights to the iPhone maker for 10 years beginning in 2023.
  • Speaking of soccer, the major European leagues are streaming in all sorts of different places: the English Premier League is on Peacock, La Liga and Bundesliga are over on ESPN+, and the UEFA Champions League is airing on Paramount+ (joining Serie A).
  • In college sports, the Big Ten conference just began a new $7 billion+ rights agreement to air games on multiple broadcasters—including Fox, FS1, the Big Ten Network, CBS, NBC, and Peacock (and, notably, not on longtime league partner ESPN).

The most impactful developments may prove to be the NFL’s Amazon and Google deals and MLB’s Apple TV+ package—both because of the players involved (known more for their e-commerce and tech than their streaming prowess) and for the fact that each deal represents a major American sports entity granting exclusive broadcast rights to streaming platforms. These may well be the first shots that usher in a larger streaming-first revolution in sports broadcasting.

Just as meaningful is the price those companies paid for their live sports streaming rights: $85 million a year from Apple for baseball, $1 billion per year from Amazon for their weekly regular season NFL matchup, and a reported $2+ billion per year from Google for Sunday Ticket. To make up for these kinds of skyrocketing costs, linear broadcasters and streaming video platforms alike are turning to two main revenue sources: subscription price hikes and—you guessed it!—advertising. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how (and why) advertisers can make the most of this evolving landscape.

Digital Advertising Opportunities on Live Sports Broadcasts

Reaching Loyal Audiences When and Where They’re Watching

Surveys show that 7 out of 10 US adults are sports fans. And people who watch sports aren’t going to catch a replay of the game once it hits Netflix in a few months—they’re going to watch it live. This is a valuable “guaranteed” audience upon which platforms and advertisers alike can place outsized value compared to other broadcasts (no wonder sports tend to dominate lists of the most-watched US broadcasts year after year). When brands want to ensure they are meeting a large, built-in audience all at once, there are few opportunities quite like live sports.

Which is not to say that brands can’t benefit from advertising against other sports content, such as highlights, clips, and replays. Those often represent prime contextual advertising opportunities, whether via contextual partners like Comscore and DoubleVerify, or with specific publishers such as the AP, Gannett, or (of course) ESPN. 

On the more local level, no matter what embarrassment, scandal, or years-long losing streak might afflict their favorite team, fans tend to “root root root for the home team” through thick and thin. For advertisers that want to geotarget, sporting events often post remarkable ratings in specific markets—and fan loyalty can translate to brand loyalty. No wonder organizations of all kinds pay out top dollars to be the official beerofficial pizzaofficial bankofficial cryptocurrency platform, or even official HR/payroll provider of your hometown team.

Sports Gambling: Watching with a Vested Interest

Another key factor that’s fueling sports viewership? Gambling, which has gone from being illegal almost everywhere in the US just four years ago to being all over American sports coverage today. As legalized sports gambling has come to more and more states, total consumer spending on gambling has skyrocketed—rising by 50% between 2020-2022—and it’s forecast to soar from $172.76 billion this year to $207.93 billion by 2027.

This growing excitement around sports betting is delivering new, passionate audiences to live sports. 40% of consumers say they’re interested in sports betting in 2023—a 9% increase from 2022— with 75% of sports betters making wagers at least once a month and nearly half (47%) saying they do so at least once a week. And if someone is spending money on the game, they’re a whole lot more likely to tune in, with 49% of consumers saying that betting makes watching or following a game more interesting.

As for where and how they're watching...

The Future is Digital: Streaming and Live Sports

More than 160 million Americans regularly watch live sports—nearly 50% of the total population. But perhaps even more notably, more than 78 million of those viewers currently tune in on digital devices, and that number is projected to rise to over 126 million by 2027. In fact, 79% of sports fans say that, if they could, they would watch live events exclusively on streaming platforms. Yep: just like the rest of the video world, the future of live sports advertising is digital.

Of course, as is the case with that larger digital video environment, the increasingly disparate nature of sports broadcast agreements is only adding to the complexity and fragmentation that mark the digital video and CTV space. Nearly half of paid video consumers say they’ve had difficulty finding specific video content because of how many different streaming services there are out there, and you can only imagine how frustrating that must be when the start of the game is rapidly approaching (and your nachos are getting cold...) And for advertisers, the evolution from a few reliable live sports hubs to numerous broadcasters across multiple channels can mean added complexity in campaigns targeting these audiences. So as streaming becomes the norm for live sports, advertisers and viewers alike are adapting to some growing pains.

That said, to their credit, the big tech companies that have waded into the live sports streaming wars are taking crucial steps toward optimizing benefits for advertisers. Amazon has a deal in place with Nielsen to measure the Thursday Night Football streaming numbers using the same panel-based national TV ratings system that it applies to linear programming, so advertisers will have some good transparency into viewership numbers on the property. Amazon has also said it will give advertisers access to sales and behavioral information to further target their TNF ads. Meanwhile, Apple is reportedly looking to vastly expand its ad business, steadily adding headcount to its Ad Platforms division, and has already worked advertising into its Friday Night Baseball broadcasts.

Even the more traditional homes of live sports—the major broadcast networks and ESPNs of the world—have readily embraced the potential of streaming those events for maximum impact. Fox, for example, included viewership numbers from Fox, Fox Deportes, and its streaming services when it reported the ratings from Super Bowl LVII—the most-watched TV broadcast of all time besides the 1969 moon landing. And annual events like the Masters golf championship and NCAA men’s basketball tournament have long had authorized (and ad-filled) streams as part of their overall broadcast packages. As viewers increasingly flock to OTT and CTV for their live sports consumption, brands will have new ways to personalize and target these consumers as part of their cross-channel marketing strategies.

Speaking of which...

Omnichannel Opportunities

The digital evolution of live sports broadcasts goes beyond individual devices. 

Even as more and more fans are watching the game on digital platforms, 46% of live sports consumers say they prefer to stream sporting events on a big screen, which means connected TV (CTV) should be a major player in the future of sports advertising. And if you’re a brand that’s trying to connect with millennial and/or Gen Z viewers—audiences that are saturated with cord-cutters and cord-nevers—CTV may already be your best bet.

But the real secret weapon for advertisers may be resting in your pocket (or your hand) right now: smartphones. Sports broadcasts present a unique cross-platform marketing opportunity, with 71% of US adults saying they use second screens) while watching live sports—mostly via smartphones. Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase became the talk of the 2022 Super Bowl ad scene with its 60-second, $14 million spot that featured nothing more than a floating QR code. That spot got more than 20 million people to pull out their phones and scan the code within one minute of its airing, driving so many people to a site offering $15 in Bitcoin to anyone who registered for a new Coinbase account that it crashed the app itself.

While few cross-channel efforts will lead to those kinds of jaw-dropping results, the strategy behind it shows the potential of cross-channel advertising during sporting events. Additionally, sports fans are a widely targetable audience segment through private marketplaces (PMPs) like Tapjoy and can be further segmented via top data providers like Alliant (golf), eXelate (NBA), and Cuebiq (NHL), helping advertisers continue to market to viewers even after the game clock hits 0:00. Put it all together, and sports programming represents a great way to consistently reach and remarket to specific target audiences across multiple devices.

Live Sports Advertising: Wrapping Up

Sporting events are a fixture of American culture. From Super Bowl Sunday every winter to the WNBA Finals every summer, live sports are a reliable way to bring people together in front of their TVs, laptops, and other streaming devices to catch the action (and, of course, the commercials). And even as the way fans consume their sports continues to evolve hand-in-hand with the rest of the video realm, advertisers will look to live sports as a pillar of their omnichannel marketing strategies. In short: it’s a home run opportunity for brands to hit their goals, assist in the revenue-driving process, and score some big wins. 

(And yes, there were seven sports puns in that last sentence. Touchdown.)

As noted above, the role of CTV in live sports advertising is expected to dramatically increase in the years ahead. But sports are not the only programming powering CTV’s rise, and advertisers are taking notice: US CTV ad spend hit $18.89 billion in 2022, and it’s projected to soar to $38.83 billion by 2026.

Want to learn more about CTV advertising? Check out our guide for tips on everything from CTV campaign best practices, to safeguards against CTV ad fraud, to effective targeting tactics, and much, much more.