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Why Sports Will Play a Greater Role in Fox's Upfront Pitch

If you’re casting around for a metaphor to convey the out-sized reach and sheer strength of the sports TV marketplace, you could do worse than Cris Carter’s otherworldly meat hooks. Having hauled in 1,101 receptions over the course of his 16 seasons in the NFL, the Hall of Famer’s hands are, as he puts it, “not normal in terms of size and flexibility,” which he then demonstrates by clasping them in front of him before bending his fingers back 90 degrees.

Carter’s manipulation of his digits is at once mesmerizing and not just a little bit gross, and the GroupM buyers and Fox Sports suits seated closest to the broadcaster in this third-floor conference room are quietly “ooh-ing” (or is it “eww-ing”?) and “aah-ing” as he goes through his routine.

“Over the course of my life playing football, wide receiver coaches taught me that flexibility and dexterity in my hands were very, very important,” Carter says, as he seemingly unhinges his thumb from its socket like a python loosening its jaw before swallowing a baby hippo. “My thumb is down here because it got in the way of catching the football. I had to stretch all these ligaments and tendons out so that I could do something special. Because there’s nothing worse than a big ol’ guy with big ol’ hands for no reason.”

It’s a little after 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 12, and while New York is intoxicated by its first spell of glorious spring weather, it’s Carter’s job to get his audience thinking about the more distant equinox. With about a month to go before Fox presents its 2017-18 upfront slate to advertisers, the company’s sports division would like media buyers to start looking ahead to the fall, when its top-rated national NFL window, beefed-up college football coverage and stewardship of the World Series make the net a must-buy for marketers looking to reach the greatest possible number of consumers at once.

To that end, Fox Sports has embarked on a sort of home-and-away barnstorming tour of the country’s top media-buying agencies; having earlier this morning taken the show to IPG’s Magna offices 15 blocks south, this afternoon’s guests at 21st Century Fox’s Midtown HQ are a contingent of GroupM execs that includes President of Investment Lyle Schwartz.

Serving as the play-by-play man for the bulk of the Fox Sports upfront pitch is President, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Producer Eric Shanks, who breaks down how Fox’s Sunday afternoon NFC slate is arguably the most desirable football package on the tube. “I’m not sure if you guys know how the NFL schedule gets made, but each network basically goes in and gets down on their knees and begs for its priority list of games,” Shanks says. “Well, nine of our top 10 wish-list games have either the Cowboys brand or the Packers brand in them. And we usually get at least seven of those top 10 games. So our NFL schedule is going to be second to none.” (The schedule won’t be released until April 20, more than a week after Shanks’ optimistic pitch.)

As it happens, the Dallas Cowboys last season were the NFL’s top draw, averaging 24.4 million viewers and a 13.4 household rating in their 12 national TV windows. The Green Bay Packers, meanwhile, were the No. 2 NFC franchise and the No. 4 NFL attraction overall, trailing only Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England. Moreover, both the Cowboys and Packers closed out the season atop their respective divisions; the last time that happened, in 2014, Fox put up its second-highest NFL deliveries since it began broadcasting pro football back in 1994.

A roster piled high with Cowboys and Packers games all but assures that Fox’s 4:20 p.m. ET national window, which it has branded “America’s Game of the Week,” will stand as the most-watched, highest-rated individual TV program for the ninth straight year. Including its Thanksgiving Day broadcast, which delivered a record 35.1 million viewers, last season’s national window averaged 26 million viewers and a 14.2 household rating. By way of comparison, the No. 2 coast-to-coast package on CBS drew 23 million viewers and a 12.8 household rating, while NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” averaged 20.4 million viewers and an 11.4 rating.

Among the most enticing regular-season games that are up for grabs are Packers-Cowboys rematch (last year’s Fox broadcast drew 28.0 million viewers and a 15.8 household rating), a Packers-Steelers air war and a rare Cowboys-Raiders skirmish.

If the prospect of yet another string of Sunday afternoon victories isn’t enough to get Shanks and his crew fired up for the fall, this season kicks off Fox Sports’ six-year, $1.44 billion deal with the Big Ten Conference. Under the terms of the new pact, not only has Fox wrested the deed to the annual Ohio State-Michigan game from co-rights holder ESPN/ABC, but it will also broadcast the Big Ten football championship game in December. (And no, the change of broadcast venues doesn’t suggest that the Buckeyes-Wolverines grudge match is going to move under the lights for a primetime airing any time soon — tradition still demands a noon game.)

That football season coincides with the same quarter in which Americans spend the bulk of their discretionary income isn’t lost on anyone at Fox. “Consumer behavior has told us that in those 20 weeks of the football season, people spend about $300 billion more than they do January through August,” Shanks says. “When America is out there spending the most, Fox Sports is at its best. We’re going to be able to help you and your brands reach the most consumers when their attention is on Fox.”

Naturally, not every brand is a Verizon or a Ford or a Geico or a McDonald’s, and not every marketer has a budget that allows them to spend as much as $800,000 for a 30-second slice of airtime in one of Fox’s 4:20 games. “A lot of the conversation is about the peripherals, the pre-game and post-game shows,” Fox Networks Group exec VP of ad sales Bruce Lefkowitz tells Ad Age shortly after the presentation. “Look at the ratings those shows deliver compared to even the highest-rated primetime entertainment shows. Just because you can’t afford to be in the game doesn’t mean you can’t be part of the action.”

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Fox’s postgame show “The OT” last season averaged a 5.0 rating in the network’s target demo, which translates to around 6.42 million adults 18 to 49 per broadcast. By comparison, the top-rated broadcast entertainment program, Fox’s “Empire,” averaged a 4.4 rating, or 5.65 million adults 18 to 49, while the average delivery for a renewed series was a meager 1.4, which works out to just 1.8 million 18-to-49-year-olds.

Sports out front
Fox Sports’ current upfront push marks only the third time the unit has held a series of autonomous agency presentations. Last spring, the sales team embarked on a six-city tour that touched down in major markets like Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco, and a 2013 event here in New York served as the coming-out party for the cable network FS1. And while the broadcast mothership traditionally has set aside just a few minutes for sports during its formal mid-May upfront event, some buyers are of the opinion that Fox Sports should assume a far more prominent role during next month’s dog-and-pony show.

“Their message is ‘we own the fall,’ so it makes sense for Fox to lean hard on the stuff that really delivers,” says one TV buyer who works with a roster of key college football sponsors. “Leave out sports and you’re left with a bunch of sizzle reels for new shows that probably won’t rate. And that’s true across the board.”

The veracity of that statement is plain to see in the Nielsen data. Strip out sports from the primetime schedule, and no one is having a very good year. Through Week 30 of the current broadcast season, ratings for the general-entertainment programming on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are as low as they’ve ever been, and not one of the nets is averaging so much as a 2.0 in the 18-to-49 demo. Wipe sports off its slate and Fox falls from second place in the seasonal ratings race with a 2.0 in the demo to a last-place 1.4.

“I genuinely believe that sports is most the undervalued asset of our time,” Lefkowitz says after the presentation. “In this day and age of accelerated fragmentation, it’s almost bulletproof.”

The Fox broadcast upfront presentation will take place on the afternoon of Monday, May 15, at New York’s Beacon Theatre. While Fox declined to disclose its game plan for that afternoon, from a tactical standpoint it’s hard to dispute that sports is a far more attractive lure than a good deal of the general-entertainment fare on the market.

Of the 14 new shows that have aired since Fox introduced them during last year’s upfront presentation, not a one has averaged so much as a 2.0 live-same-day rating in the 18-to-49 demo, and the average for the freshman slate is a meager 0.9 rating. (Time-shifted commercial deliveries bumps that up to around a 1.4 in the C7 currency, and while that’s a more relevant figure for ad buying than live-same-day, it’s still nothing to shout from the rooftops.)

A similarly prosaic argument in favor of a more sports-heavy upfront pitch has to do with the creeping inevitability of a Writers Guild of America strike.

Scripted uncertainty
Anyone who remembers the impact the 1988 WGA walkout had on the TV business — the Big Three broadcasters pushed back the start of the fall season to late October, and the junk-drawer replacement programming had a withering effect on the primetime ratings — will recall the corresponding uncertainties the work stoppage brought to bear during the summer upfront negotiations.

Should the writers begin picketing two weeks before Fox’s New York presentation, it might very well work to the network’s advantage to lead off with its unscripted, high-octane sports content.

Where sports stands out most in the TV landscape, however, is its immediacy. According to Mike Mulvihill, the executive VP of research, league operations and strategy for Fox Sports, 93% of all sports TV viewing in 2016 took place live, whereas only about 70% of general-entertainment primetime consumption occurred in real-time. And one of the primary advantages of a live, engaged audience is that they tend to stick around for the commercials.

“We’re at a point now where live sports and live television really define the highest end of TV,” Mulvihill says. “You look at the top 100 most-watched telecasts of last year, 92 of them were sports, with NFL games accounting for the majority of those broadcasts. So we’re in a place now where the super premium end of our business is entirely defined by big, live events.”

Fox in the summer of 2018 will all but own what Mulvihill characterizes as the “marketplace of attention” when it broadcasts its first FIFA Men’s World Cup. And while much of Fox’s ratings success will depend on the U.S. team advancing out of the Group Stage — as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and the rest of the American squad did for ESPN in 2014 by reaching the Round of Sixteen — the sheer cumulative effect the 64-game tournament will have on ratings and revenue is difficult to overstate. (Of course, should the U.S. fail to qualify for the World Cup outright — knock wood — that’ll amount to about $200 million in Fox rights fees down the toilet, given the impact the team’s absence will have on the ratings. Qualifiers continue through the fall.)

Shanks says his team learned a great deal during its stewardship of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and will apply those lessons to next year’s tourney. “We know how to activate this country, and who to target, in order to get the most anticipation and viewership for the World Cup,” Shanks says, adding that in a bid to siphon off English-speaking Hispanic viewers from Telemundo, Fox will cover the Mexican national squad “as if it’s a second home team.”

Fox also plans to go all-in on teenagers, which represent the first generation of Americans who recognize that soccer is no longer a niche sport, as was made evident by the 25.4 million viewers who watched USA beat Japan in the 2015 Final. Naturally, Fox will make the matches available on every conceivable platform, but to ensure the greatest possible linear TV audience, it also plans to schedule an unprecedented number of World Cup games on its free-to-air broadcast network.

FS1 boss Jamie Horowitz’s deep dive into the changing face of cable sports programming concludes the formal part of Fox Sports’ pitch to GroupM, but it is Shanks who manages to put a frame around the presentation a bit earlier in the afternoon. As the last strains of Led Zeppelin’s rampaging viking dirge “The Immigrant Song” fade out — Fox gets the Led out with all the frequency and vigor of a Long Island FM-radio station DJ — Shanks offers a plain-spoken summation to his guests.

“Is Fox working harder to deserve your dollars than somebody else?” he asks. “Are we good partners? And that’s what we want you to think about when you leave here today.”

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