Along with the highlights, the trade rumors and news of misbehaving athletes, viewers of ESPN's SportsCenter are about to get a bigger dose of politics.
The sports giant says it will sell commercial time to candidates in local markets now instead of just nationally. Executives are selling it as a good fit for politicians.
"Sports has become so culturally relevant, and the live nature of the programming has made what we happen to have at ESPN very attractive to the advertising community across all kinds of products," says Ed Erhardt, the network's president of sales. "And those concepts would be applicable to political candidates as well."
Local political ads won't just appear on the nightly highlights show SportsCenter; they'll also pop up on ESPN's college and NFL games this fall. Those games could prove irresistible to candidates looking to hit a wide swath of voters, especially traditionally hard-to-reach young white men.
"If you're looking for white males in battleground states, football is a very good way to reach them. Think about battleground states in the Midwest like an Ohio or a Wisconsin," says Ken Goldstein, president of the ad tracking firm Kantar Media CMAG. "What's it worth to be on an Ohio State-Wisconsin football game in the fall just before a presidential election? I think the answer is a lot."
ESPN isn't the only network that will be mixing sports and politics in the coming days. President Obama's campaign says it will spend $5.5 million on ads during NBC's Olympics coverage. And Restore Our Future, a superPAC that backs Republican candidate Mitt Romney, announced a $7 million Olympics ad buy.
The Obama campaign has also been advertising during baseball. One ad focusing on the candidates' stance on contraception and abortion ran during a recent Washington Nationals game, presumably aimed at female voters in the northern suburbs of Virginia, a swing state.
While selling a candidate when viewers are looking to escape into sports may seem counterintuitive, in practical terms it makes sense for candidates.
"Regular viewers of sports tend to be those types of voters who turn out in higher numbers than viewers of other types of genres," says Michael Franz, a government professor at Bowdoin College. "In the case of the Olympics, for example, not only will regular Americans who are not sports enthusiasts be watching but obviously sports enthusiasts will be watching closely, and that type of regular sports viewer is someone who regularly turns out to vote in high numbers."
Another advantage of sports programming: It's usually watched live, meaning viewers aren't able to fast-forward past a commercial (though they still can escape to the refrigerator or elsewhere).
But candidates might be advised not to run their standard attack ad during a game.
"If you have a theme to your advertising, it might involve an athlete, it might involve a sport, might involve competition. ... All of our research shows that those ads tend to perform better," says ESPN's Erhardt, who has found that in advertising during sports, context is key. "If the advertising that a political candidate would do on ESPN is thought out and is creatively relevant within that context, I do believe it will be more effective rather than it just being the same advertising that they're running everywhere.
With the upcoming blitz of political ads on sports programs, the phrase "here's the pitch" takes on a whole new meaning.
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