Sports inventory is selling out faster than ever

And media buyers are feeling the squeeze.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

At the tail-end of February, many laggardly advertisers interested in the 2022 NCAA Division 1 Women’s Basketball Tournament found themselves out of luck. ESPN was entirely sold out of ad inventory for the women’s March Madness tournament, with more than a dozen sponsors and 22 advertisers, including Capital One and Invesco, locking in spots more than three weeks before play began—a record for the network.

Record-breaking sell-out stories like these are no longer an anomaly. The market for sports inventory is red-hot as advertisers seek out safe bets on big audiences and networks sell sports as part of big upfront packages months before kick-offs and tip-offs. All of that means sports ad inventory is selling faster than ever before.

“We’re in a consolidated environment, and the sports are in high demand,” Deidra Maddock, Disney’s VP of sports brand solutions, told Marketing Brew. “People want to make sure that they don’t miss those windows, and they want to make sure that they can get where they want to be at the prices that they need to be at. And so that certainly is escalating the timeframe.”

You don’t have to just take her word for it: It’s apparent for just about every major sporting event on TV. Advertising inventory for the March Madness men’s tournament sold out in early March, with John Bogusz, executive VP, sports sales and marketing at CBS, telling reporters that it was “one hell of a selling season.” Meanwhile, Super Bowl marketing is moving faster than ever: NBC sold 85% of its Super Bowl inventory seven months ahead of this year’s game, and Fox began discussing 2023 Super Bowl ad inventory as early as September 2021. At ESPN, the WNBA’s 2022 season—which starts on May 6—is already “very well sold out,” Disney spokesperson Kristen Smith told Marketing Brew.

No time to waste

That means media buyers are feeling the squeeze as the timelines for all major sporting events on television have been moved up—in many cases by at least several months.

Kevin Collins, SVP of strategic investment at Magna Global, said in 2018, he was inking deals for NFL fall football over the summer, the Super Bowl in October or November, and March Madness in December. “Fast-forward three years to last year’s upfront: I was done with NFL, the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and college football May 14 and May 21,” Collins told Marketing Brew.

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In June, he was making deals for college football, golf, baseball, NHL hockey, and NBA basketball—all of which were previously conducted in August. “And then even March Madness was bumped up by almost a month and a half,” Collins said.

The accelerated sales windows, which other buyers confirmed to Marketing Brew, comes down to supply and demand: While many live television events are losing their ratings luster, sports telecasts have remained more resistant to ratings erosion, making it one of the few places for both new and long-standing advertisers alike to find big audiences. Meanwhile, new deep-pocketed advertisers, like cryptocurrency and sportsbooks, are applying additional pressure to already limited inventory.

“You’re seeing other categories suddenly be more interested in sports that historically may not have,” Jeff Gagne, SVP of strategic investment at Havas Media, told Marketing Brew. “You’ve got things like football deliver more women than primetime television, so you’ve got brands that are seeking more diverse demos that are leaning on sports to deliver them.”

Tied up in the upfronts

But there’s another reason why sports inventory is selling so fast. Networks are selling it differently than they used to, increasingly putting more and more sports deals on the table during upfronts. That helps attract client dollars, which will (hopefully) translate to higher upfront figures.

“Networks can keep parity with the year before by adding more [inventory] to the same marketplace,” Gagne said, adding that advertisers who want to lock in inventory have little choice but to play along. “It’s forcing the hand of the buyer.”

Ultimately, advertisers had better get used to it. One buyer, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about dealmaking, said advertisers that aren’t prepared to make earlier commitments than they’ve ever had to will miss out on moments they want.

“[A client may say] ‘Hey, we want to buy Monday Night Football,’” the buyer said, “and you’re like, ‘Great—it sold out last week.’”

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