Competitive race should mean big ad sales, but candidates hold back … at least for now

By John Ourand on August 1, 2016 at 8:06 AM

Combine a competitive presidential election with unlimited spending due to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and TV networks should be in prime position when it comes to ad sales from the Clinton and Trump campaigns.

But not so fast.

Top ad executives say an unprecedented amount of sales activity around the primaries has slowed considerably. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has made small media buys in targeted markets, while Donald Trump’s campaign has been completely quiet, according to several ad sales executives.

“You have more money than you’ve ever had with Citizens United [decision], with a bigger footprint than you’ve ever had in terms of battleground states,” said Stephen Ullman, director of political ad sales for Home Team Sports, which sells for the country’s regional sports networks and Fox’s national entertainment and sports networks. “But it’s all breaking later than it ever has. It will be more money trying to be crammed into a smaller window in the run-up to Nov. 8.”

Other networks, like Turner, are singing similar tunes. While its news network, CNN, is seeing big ratings and “aggressive” ad sales around its election coverage, the campaigns and the political action committees have largely stayed on the sideline, said Katrina Cukaj, executive vice president of portfolio sales and client partnerships for Turner Ad Sales.

“Trump is not spending a ton,” she said. “Hillary is spending more, but it’s pretty diverse in terms of the networks that she’s buying.”

Last week, the pro-Trump Rebuilding America Now PAC bought time with several networks, including Home Team Sports, during the Democratic Party’s national convention.

Network executives expect both campaigns to start spending more starting this month, but that could be problematic as the most popular shows are sold out or close to it, leaving tighter inventory for the campaigns.

“In our world, we’re already booking for 2017,” Ullman said. “In their world, they don’t know what’s happening two weeks from now.”

Sports networks saw a record amount of activity from political campaigns during the primary season but it slowed quickly.

“Once Trump secured the nomination [in May], everything shut off and nobody has really done anything,” Ullman said. “Even Hillary isn’t doing giant buys.”

While Clinton’s ad buys so far largely have centered on female-focused networks, like Lifetime, she has been active in MLB this year, buying time in key swing states, such as Cleveland Indians games on SportsTime Ohio, Miami Marlins games on FS Florida, Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports, and Boston Red Sox games on NESN to hit New Hampshire.

“It really has been targeted and selective with what they’re doing,” Ullman said.

Clinton’s buys remind ad sales executives of Obama’s 2012 strategy, when he spent around 70 to 80 percent of his ad sales budget in three battleground states: Virginia, Ohio and Florida.

Executives with CBS, ESPN and NBC say their business generally is not helped by presidential elections, as campaigns make largely local buys.

“The presidential election has the ability to impact local markets a lot more than national ones,” said Optimum Sports Managing Director Jeremy Carey.

But Ullman said that given the number of potential battleground states, a national network buy could make better sense. The two candidates have said that they plan to compete in California, Illinois and New York.

“When you start adding big DMAs like L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, New York, you might as well buy network,” Ullman said. “It will cost you more to buy the NFL in those five markets than it would to buy the ‘NFL on Fox’ and be in 210 DMAs in 50 states.”

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