Television and the race for live viewers

Baseball is always a winner as a live sport broadcast

From the World Cup to Wimbledon to the NBA Finals to Major League Baseball, there has been no end to the live sports coverage happening this summer (or any summer for that matter). But amidst the ongoing excitement of overtimes and walk off home runs, another contest is taking place: the race between digital streaming and traditional TV to reach the eyeballs of sports fans everywhere. In fact, 47% of viewers worldwide are watching more live-events on digital platforms than they were last year. And in the United States, 76% of all digitally live-viewed events stemmed from sports content.

So, as we all pull our fall jackets out of the closet and glimpse ahead at NFL Football on Sundays, MLB Playoffs, Premiere League schedules, and LeBron’s Hollywood debut, the need for advertisers to keep up with sports fans who are streaming away on digital platforms is crucial. And it requires a shift in strategy – one unique from not only traditional television advertising but also from standard digital strategies. The key lies in understanding how programmatic advertising empowers brands with the flexibility required to adapt to the spontaneity of live sports audiences.

Predicting the number of viewers that will tune into any event is challenging – both for traditional television networks and digital streaming platforms. Unlike traditional TV, streaming audiences have little to no historical data, so predictability can prove even tougher in this environment. So many factors can influence an event’s ultimate audience size – including pre-determined elements like proximity to holidays or weekends, as well as completely random ones like weather or traffic. With traditional TV buys, this sort of volatility is accepted as part of the package.

During Upfront negotiations, advertisers already expect that they may not get all the placements they’re asking for. Perhaps their budgets are too small for flagship games or maybe the level of coverage they wanted for a specific sport is not available. With programmatic, advertisers are empowered to fill the gaps in their linear strategies, reach incremental streaming audiences, and capitalize on live event opportunities as they appear in real time.

Wielding more control over live-event strategies than their traditional counterparts, programmatic ad buyers get to be selective and opportunistic. They purchase ads on only the content of their choosing and pay only the amount they deem worthy. They determine the frequency at which households or viewers see a single ad so as not to bombard their audience with the same message. And they set maximum budgets in advance, reacting in real-time based on the audience that ultimately streams in. Should their target audiences be available, depending on first- and third-party data insights, programmatic campaigns will spend accordingly until they reach their budget cap. Or, if the audiences aren’t available to be reached, that budget can be repurposed across other digital campaigns.

Likewise, due to the way live events draw in these audiences – in huge amounts over just a number of hours – they require a pacing strategy unique from standard digital or linear television campaigns. Just consider the average Monday Night Football game. As masses of NFL fans tune in for those few hours, digital platforms experience a spike in concurrent streams. Programmatic enables advertisers to capitalize on the momentary jump in available digital ad inventory by matching the pace at which the budget spends to the momentum of the event itself.

Earlier this year at Super Bowl LII, advertisers missed out on a huge opportunity. Despite it being the most live-streamed event to date and delivering an audience of 2.02 million viewers per minute across a number of apps, nearly 30% of the of ad breaks went unfilled – leaving viewers to stare at static screens. It was a loss for all teams: the brands that should have been engaging, the streaming platforms that should have been monetizing, and the audiences who were left with a subpar viewing experience. So, as we head into the fall schedule, advertisers should take the offensive play – and be ready to engage their audience no matter how they’re watching the game.

Tim Sims is the senior vice president of inventory partnerships at The Trade Desk

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