College football wins more fans and ad dollars
The sport is overtaking Major League Baseball in popularity, especially among younger viewers.
Among viewers and advertisers, sports are slowly drifting into two categories: Football and Not Football.
Just ahead of the national championship game between the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the Alabama Crimson Tide, Ad Age has found that college football is slowly overtaking Major League Baseball as America's second-most popular sport. When Harris polled Americans in December to see what their favorite sport was, pro football led the pack with 34% of the vote, followed by baseball with 16% and college football at 11%.
Since Harris started its sports poll in 1985, baseball's popularity has plummeted 7% while college football is up 1%. For advertisers, college football is already the second in command. During their 2011 seasons, the National Football League took in $3.3 billion in national ads, college football earned $975 million and major league baseball trailed with $784 million, according to Nielsen (NLSN). Football is only padding its lead; baseball's sluggish pace is costing that sport more ground as years progress.
The Harris poll indicates that college football is most popular with viewers 18-to-24 years old. Baseball's key demographic is 50-to-64 years old. The passion for each sport among those key fan bases is also headed in opposite directions. ESPN's 2011 Sports Poll among Americans ages 12 and up put Major League Baseball at No. 2 with 11.7% of the vote, well behind the NFL's 25.6% but just ahead of college football at 10%. When polling "avid" fans, however, ESPN found that college football was the favored sport among 24.6% of that audience and trailed only the NFL's 33.3% margin. Major League Baseball came was in third with 20.6%, which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't tied with college football at roughly 17% in 2001.
With baseball losing steam and no other sport drawing more than 10% of fans' attention, it's getting a lot easier for advertisers to figure out what dates on the sports calendar are worth throwing piles of money at. For college football's national championship game on Monday, for example, Ad Age says ESPN got companies including Nissan (NSANY), Discover (DFS) and Yum Brands' (YUM) Taco Bell to pay $1 million for 30-second spots. That's about a third of what Anheuser-Busch (BUD), Pepsico (PEP) and others are paying CBS (CBS) for Super Bowl ads this year, but it's double what Fox brought in per 30-second ad during a four-game World Series in October.
It's also a relative discount compared to what advertisers will likely shell out next year, when college football does away with its Bowl Championship Series system for picking its title contenders and switches to a four-team playoff format. Companies wondering what ESPN will charge to show their spots during that multi-game event might want to stare long and hard at the eight words that Sharon Byers, Coca-Cola's vice president of sports and entertainment, used to prognosticate about the playoff's potential advertising impact during the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum last month in New York City: "It will be better than the Super Bowl."
As it stands, advertising market research firm Kantar Media says the NFL's postseason already draws $900 million in ad revenue compared to baseball's $450 million. Coca-Cola has been a Super Bowl advertiser, an NCAA sponsor and a contributor to the nearly $740 million that college basketball's March Madness playoff brings in each year, including $1.2 million apiece for 30-second ads during its championship game.
If Coca-Cola's already predicting college football's playoff can draw more eyes during the Super Bowl, companies should get ready to open their wallets. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, should prepare to fight for football's leftover peanuts and Cracker Jack.
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