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By Parker Herren | May 02, 2024.

5 industry leaders weigh in on streaming sports, trending franchises and new ad opportunities

As one of the only must-buys left for advertisers on TV, the sports marketplace will have an increasingly outsize importance in this year’s upfronts ad haggle.

While the Super Bowl—airing next year on Fox—remains the golden ticket of upfront investment, leagues and live events outside of the NFL have grown in demand as advertisers seek lower-cost ad space and large audiences outside of on-demand streaming.

But the sports landscape has also become more complex as leagues continue to license their content across linear and streaming TV, and media companies create more platforms for consumers to watch on. And this year’s upfront promises new opportunities for advertisers amid explosive demand for women’s sports and the introduction of new platforms like the joint venture streamer from Fox, Warner Bros. Discovery and Disney.

Ad Age asked five industry leaders their prediction for the top trends in sports advertising for the 2024 TV upfront.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Martin Blich, executive director, sports and live investment, GroupM U.S.: Sports have increasingly become a cornerstone of the modern upfront marketplace because of audiences’ continued attention and engagement to games hosted weekly, during holidays and within cultural moments. This year, many are focused on investing in women’s sports, and there’s some exciting experimentation happening in broadcast and streaming formats so brands can better connect with their desired audiences.

As audiences migrate, advertisers have continually incorporated streaming into their holistic media investments, and sports—ripe in both reach and engagement—has naturally been a part of their key considerations. Across the media industry, there’s a lot of exploration happening that’s related to ad formats and ad load, so it should be fun to see how advertisers can use complementary experiences to connect with fans. We can expect overall streaming consumption to increase this year.

Jeremy Carey, chief investment officer, Optimum Sports: In the history of women’s sports, we haven’t seen the financial impact to any given sport like we just witnessed with women’s basketball. Arguably, Caitlin Clark had a Tiger Woods-type impact on the sport, and did it in a way that lifted her sport faster than even Tiger was able to do and with more boats rising with the tide. The NCAA tournament didn’t just engage fans, it created new ones. I do believe there will be some fall off of this high, but nowhere near falling back to prior audience levels.

We are focused on understanding audiences better to make sure we can activate our brands better both inside and outside of the commercial pod. We’ve been using corporate partnerships to open new doors tied to in-content activation and we will continue to push the benefits to in-content marketing. Inside the commercial pod, live events are still driving incredible value. We are looking to these historic-scale events to work harder in the marketing mix.

The migration of consumers over to digital content consumption creates opportunity for us.  However, it’s important to understand when dealing with live sports events, that almost every linear broadcast has a digital distribution point. In most cases, the linear ad feed is passed through to the digital distribution point and the audience is guaranteed cumulatively.  We’ve gotten in the habit of not using “linear” to describe live sports, and have opted to position it as live simulcast. What we have seen is more major national broadcast rights being awarded to digital-only distribution partners. NFL, NHL, MLS, MLB, WNBA, [English Premier League], college sports and now the NBA are all putting exclusive windows on digital distribution platforms. For us, that should mean increased opportunities to engage consumers in more meaningful ways.

Rita Ferro, president of global advertising, Disney: The notion of surrounding the sports fan in a truly cross-platform execution continues to be something that clients are always looking for. That full surround in sports has never been more important. Live games drive conversation and cultural moments, but how commerce, gaming, social and sports betting ties into all of that conversation through sports coverage and the sports fan, that’s where advertisers win.

[Disney’s digital sports platforms such as the sports streaming joint venture and future ESPN streamer] are not in lieu of, they’re in addition to how we’re looking at these platforms to really amplify new audiences. To the extent that we’re able to take and leverage what we’re doing in ad innovation across the connected TV arena, whether that’s through commerce or gaming or retail, those opportunities will continue to expand as more league rights go to streaming platforms and obviously, understanding more around who those audiences are. The ability to have our linear business connected to our streaming business allows us to understand those audiences across both platforms, and how we can bring brands in front of those audiences with the best data that informs consumption and the advertising solutions that drive the best results across screens. That’s what’s exciting about more audiences migrating, but we still have a tremendous amount of consumption happening on linear and growing on linear in the sports business.