Find Your Fans: Debunking Five Myths About Sports Advertising


Across the industry, advertisers look to sports programming to reach a live, engaged audience on television. Studies have shown that campaigns that incorporate live sports, on average, deliver more of an advertiser’s audience than those that don’t. And although 2020 has looked different for sports, the fans haven’t gone anywhere – in fact, in Q2 of this year, the MLB, NHL and NBA starts and restarts of their seasons averaged a viewership increase of 71% over last year, with nearly 2.5 million households watching.1 And, recently, 13 major sports aired on one single “sports solstice” weekend, driving the average viewer to watch seven hours of sports during that weekend.2

But sports advertising is changing. Today, new viewing platforms and options have changed the way sports are consumed, while the availability of new data insights and technology have changed the way sports advertising is bought and sold. In this quickly changing world – where media innovation has been sped up even more thanks to increasing TV viewership and remote work situations – it’s important to separate the myths from the truths surrounding sports advertising.

Myth #1: Network sports are the only game in town

Truth: Last year, 97% of all sports programming ran on cable

For many advertisers new to sports programming, it’s all about the big events – Monday Night Football, MLB Playoffs, and the Olympics mainstage. But did you know that in 2019, 97%of all sports programming ran on cable? This equates to over 155,000 hours of sports programming and all the consumer eyeballs that come with it – that’s nearly 18 years of continuous coverage if you stacked it end to end! And when we talk about cable sports, we’re talking about live viewing – according to Nielsen, cable sports are watched live 98% of the time.3

Myth #2: Rabid sports fans are loyal only to their favorite sport 

Truth: Over half of these “superfans” watch 3 or more sports…and you can find out which ones

According to Comcast viewership data, 55% of heavy sports viewers watch three or more sports on a consistent basis.4 With the right insights, advertisers can reach their target audience even when their favorite sports aren’t on. For example, it’s not surprising that college football fans also gravitate towards NFL games, but additional insights also show they enjoy golf, college basketball and Major League Baseball most among the other options.

This type of insight is also especially important now, as many sports are dealing with revised schedules; during this time, fans don’t stop watching TV—rather, these “superfans” tend to seek out other sports in a predictable way. Consumer insights like these help sports advertisers reach their audience reliably and consistently, in ways that weren’t possible just a few years ago.

Myth #3: Sports is all about the “big game”

Truth: Over 2/3 of fans also watch the “game around the game”

In sports advertising, we often talk about the “game around the game.” This refers to the seemingly endless commentary, opinion and analysis programs that help build anticipation for and reflect back on the main event. During last year’s NBA finals, which aired on broadcast, 68% of those who tuned into ESPN before or after the big event also watched the game itself.

While sports inventory can be limited, and the high demand for that inventory often forces higher rates, the programming around the game can allow brands to reach much of the same audience without the same price point. In fact, sports news and commentary accounts for over one-third of all cable sports viewing. So, if you’re just thinking about the game, you’re missing out.

Myth #4: Viewers only want to watch sports if their team is winning 

Truth: Fandom goes deeper than wins and losses

Here’s the truth: First, live sports assure we don’t know the winner until a game is over, so fans more often than not are hanging on to see the outcome – and with it, the ads. Second, team interest is tied directly to the league, not a particular game, so most fans will stick with a sport even if their team isn’t doing well.

Case in point: Consider the Boston market’s viewing of the NBA playoffs last year. According to Nielsen, non-Celtics NBA Playoff games delivered almost twice the GRPs of Celtics Playoff games. As fans, we may be hung up on a particular team, but it’s natural to follow a league’s result until the finish.6

Forget the myths, and focus on the audience you’re trying to reach

Live sports are a great way to expand your audience reach with a highly engaged and loyal viewer. But with so many opportunities available today to reach your audience in smart and efficient ways, it’s critical that sports advertisers do their homework and figure out where that audience is watching. When developing a media approach that incorporates sports, remember to focus on who you are looking reach, not where. With this in mind, your media plan will be a slam dunk.


1. Effectv TV Viewership Report, September 2020

2. Comcast Internal Viewing Data. Full Year 2019. Number of sports watched among heavy sports viewer tercile.

3. Nielsen NPOWER, CY 2019, ALL SN-SE-SC-SA Program Types. Based on total duration of programming on Broadcast vs Cable.

4. Comcast Viewership Data. Full Year 2019. Number of sports watched among heavy sports viewer tercile.

5. Comcast Viewership Data. Measurement of duplicated audience viewing cable networks one hour before and one hour after the NBA Finals (Game 7: ABC, 6/12/19) as well as viewing the event. 5 minute minimum viewing threshold.

6. Nielsen Arianna. 2019 Boston GRPS, Celtics Playoffs, Non-Celtics Playoffs