Maybe Jill Biden was hoping to help her husband’s chances during the 2024 Iowa primary when the first lady quipped that the White House should invite women’s D1 NCAA basketball champion LSU and runner-up Iowa to visit.
Dr. Biden’s team didn’t expect the fallout from a seemingly innocent gesture of sportsmanship that recognized the record-setting audience and historic performance of the championship game – 9.9 million viewers watched LSU beat Iowa 102-85, the highest scoring championship game in NCAA history.
Instead, star player and tournament MVP Angel Reese said her team preferred to visit the Obamas. The gaffe is unlikely to have much of an impact on next year’s Iowa caucus or Louisiana primary for the president, but it’s a reminder to campaigns that the politics of sports in America is fraught with challenges.
In fact, those challenges extend into media buying, with campaigns now having to navigate a new normal where some of the biggest draws in live sports are shifting to streaming platforms, which have new sets of rules for political marketers. For evidence, look no further than NBC’s announcement this week that it’ll air an NFL playoff game exclusively on Peacock in January 2024.
As a result, maneuvering clients into positions to hit their audiences on live sports this cycle will be an unprecedented challenge for buyers and media strategists.
That’s partly because no matter where a game is playing, live sports remains one of the most effective ways to reach regular voters. To wit, nearly 55 percent of adults who always vote in statewide elections indicate they’re very interested in at least one sport, according to my firm’s analysis of Nielsen’s Scarborough Research.
Political consultants are aware of this. They’re also aware that fans like to watch sports live, meaning campaigns can find captive audiences of reliable voters at very specific times with their campaign ads. For instance, more than 66 percent of adults who are “very interested” in the PGA Tour or LPGA tour say they always vote in statewide elections.
And some 64 percent of college basketball and football fans are high-turnout voters, too, according to Nielsen data.
Fans of golf and college sports tend to be older, more educated and have higher incomes, demographic traits that historically have correlated to a higher propensity to vote.
Moreover, media research tells us that fans of college sports, golf, MLB, and racing sports such as horse racing, NASCAR and Formula 1, tend to be more Republican than the average U.S. adult. Fans of the NBA, WNBA, tennis (ATP and WTA), MLS, and Olympic sports like figure skating and gymnastics tend to be more Democratic. Fans of the NFL are 10 percent more likely to vote than the average U.S. adult, while we find loyalty to the shield is similar across parties and even among independents.
The NFL has consistently delivered the largest TV audiences on a weekly basis over the last decade. Sunday Night Football has been the most watched program in primetime TV since American Idol last topped the ratings in the 2010-11 season according to Nielsen. Sunday afternoon NFL games on FOX and CBS routinely attract audiences of 20 million or more.
But audience retention is a concern when media rights change. Recall that average audiences for Monday Night Football (MNF) decreased when MNF moved from ABC to ESPN in 2006. In fact, MNF still doesn’t average the same size audiences as ABC did pre-2006.
Streaming and cable audiences for the NFL are lower than games on the broadcast networks. Streaming audiences tend to be younger, a demographic trait that historically has correlated to a lower propensity to vote. Still, there’s some upside for advertisers as digital streaming vendors often allow for more precise audience targeting, meaning campaigns can target specific audience segments and minimize wasted impressions delivered to non-voters.
Let’s look at the recently released NFL schedule. No fewer than three broadcast networks have rights to NFL regular season games – CBS, FOX, and NBC – plus MNF on ESPN, the London games on NFL Network, and Thursday Night Football (TNF) streamed exclusively on Amazon Prime. That doesn’t count simulcast contracts in the home media markets of teams playing in MNF or TNF, where the local team’s broadcast partner can broadcast the game, too.
A simple search of NFL.com lists 15 “ways to watch” live NFL games across various broadcast, cable, and streaming partners. And we haven’t even begun to consider radio broadcasts.
A glance at the reigning Super Bowl champs’ 2023-24 schedule reveals that the Kansas City Chiefs play games on Amazon Prime, CBS, FOX, and NBC all within the first 6 weeks of the season — they’ll complete the broadcast double hat trick before Thanksgiving when they play on the NFL Network from London and the Philadelphia Eagles on MNF.
Scouting a specific team or league’s TV schedule is important work for political media planners and buyers. Outside of the NFL, the ad industry is considering potential implications of the changes coming to sports broadcast rights.
The NBA’s current TV deal expires next year, MLB is 25 percent of the way through its season and the RSN model is in jeopardy for some teams, and more streaming companies are looking to get in the game. Live sports are target audience rich environments for campaigns to use to find voters, but the web of broadcast, cable, and streaming providers is creating a new challenge.
Amazon Prime, streamer of TNF, currently doesn’t accept political ads. Apple TV+, streamer of MLS, currently does not accept ads. Hulu, Peacock, Paramount+, Discovery+ all include subscription tiers that are ad-free, and this isn’t an exhaustive list.
Media strategists can’t control the content providers, but they stand ready to purchase ad time in sports when and where available. When the 2024 primary season kicks off, you’ll see campaigns gobbling up inventory in early primary and caucus states in the NFL playoffs, college basketball, NHL, NBA, and early season NASCAR.
Later primary states might see action in MLB, NBA and NHL playoffs, golf majors, tennis grand slams, horse racing and niche college sports. As campaigns move through the summer the 2024 Paris Olympics become a factor before fall sports kick off again with college football, MLB playoffs, the NFL and more.
Voters are consumers of media. Tracking the changing trends of media consumption behaviors is an exercise in data science and anecdotal evidence. When Lionel Messi hoisted the World Cup trophy in December, the Angle boys were watching live in the back seat of a car in upstate New York thanks to a hotspot and Peacock — $4.99 a month seemed a fair price to watch the greatest footballer of all time win the greatest sports tournament in the world. For voters, finding a way to watch a favorite team has become a game before the game. But finding those voters on the right platform, at the right time, is how media buyers and strategists can win their own game.
Ben Angle manages ad buying for Republican clients at National Media Research, Planning & Placement, LLC.