With fears over cord cutters driving down the share prices of The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE:DIS) and fellow TV network operators, some recent news about ad spending should offer a ray of hope for investors in The Mouse.
Live sports remain the most coveted turf there is for TV advertisers.
In separate reports last month, both Kantar Media and MoffettNathanson Research pegged the share of total network TV advertising revenue brought in during live sports broadcasts at 37%, up from 29% in 2010-2011. That's a staggering number, given the vast amount of non-sports programming that airs on the networks every day.
Indeed, with the exception of Thursday night football games in the fall and some playoff finals, live sports on the networks are generally relegated to Saturdays and Sundays. Even during football season, when games start in the early afternoon and end in the late evening, sports make up no more about 12%-13% of any network's weekly broadcasting hours.
Meanwhile, advertising growth for all of that other programming has fallen, MoffettNathanson reported.
Bigger bucks from a smaller audience?
This is important, given the TV viewing trends among the major sports. The NFL, the sport that draws the biggest U.S. audiences, saw viewership decline from 2013 to 2014, while audiences for Monday Night Footfall fell by some 10% over the course of the past five seasons. Even more dramatic losses were reported for the NBA.
Those losses could only serve to heighten any skepticism investors already have about Disney, whose ESPN network has inked expensive, long-term deals to broadcast NFL and NBA games, among other sports. The company's media division is a huge part of its overall business, generating nearly 58% of its income in the last quarter.
Combine that with concerns about the growing number of people willing to ditch their cable providers in favor of services like Netflix and Hulu and set-top streaming players, and it's easy to see why investors in Disney got spooked last quarter, sending the stock into a tailspin.
Outpacing overall ad growth 2-to-1
But even as sports viewership has fallen, and the rate of people cutting the cord has picked up, it's clear that advertising during sports events remains highly coveted by companies.
Sports ad revenue rose 8.2% a year from 2009 and 2013, doubling growth in TV advertising overall, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. That was about the same rate at which MoffettNathanson saw TV sports advertising grow in the 2014-2015 TV season.
And while the focus of its report seemed to be on the broadcasting networks, the research firm noted that cable TV networks were also seeing better results over the last five years in sports advertising.
There are good reasons for this. Sports broadcasts reach a demographic that those companies are very interested in reaching: males between the ages of 18 and 49.
Since they are live broadcasts, sports are also one of the few areas of programming where advertisers can bank on a large percentage of viewers actually seeing the commercials they are paying to air.
Not many fans DVR or TiVo sporting events and then binge-watch later, skipping through commercial breaks the way they do episodes of The Bachelor. Unless you're running to the bathroom or the kitchen, you're likely watching through the ads that air during a game.
Preparing for what's to come
The numbers for sports advertising are strong, but we still can't ignore progress. As more sports become available through online platforms, a growing number of cable subscribers will have less reason to stay tied to their bundle. Their defections will hurt Disney over time.
But Disney has also already been preparing for the future, both by reportedly cutting costs at its sports networks and by contemplating a stand-alone ESPN service to which sports fans would be able to subscribe directly.
In the meantime, the strengthening market for live sports advertising is another sign of the strength of Disney's position in television. It owns TV's premier sports properties, and its contracts to broadcast NFL, NBA, and NCAA football games should keep it fetching high ad rates and put it in a stronger bargaining position with cable providers who understand that live sports are one of the few reasons many of its customers keep sticking around.