After four long months, the country’s major sports leagues are finally roaring back to life. The MLB season began last week, the NBA resumes play on Thursday and the NHL returns on Saturday. As the dormant sports ad sales marketplace heats up—with billions in sports revenue up for grabs once again—NBC Sports is sharing the results of a study that shows just how much viewers missed sports, and how much they love the brands that advertise in the games as well.

After Covid-19 shut down sports in March, NBC Sports commissioned a sports deprivation study to illustrate what the loss meant to the ecosystem. It was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to show advertisers how much sports influences consumers’ lives, said Dan Lovinger, evp, advertising sales, NBC Sports Group.

NBCUniversal surveyed 2,346 sports fans in mid-May, prior to the resumption of Nascar and golf that month, and coupled that with more in-depth interviews with 20 sports fans.

Among the biggest findings: “Live sports form vital building blocks for fans’ identities,” said Lovinger, noting that 82% of respondents said it’s hard to live without sports, while 76% said they aren’t the same person without sports.

Additionally, sports provide emotional engagement for consumers, giving them comfort and escape.

That carries over to live sports advertisers as well. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed said brands that advertise in live sports play an important part in making sports a great experience for fans. “Brands and live sports have this mutually beneficial relationship,” Lovinger said. And fans believe “that advertising is a big part of the sports experience.”

NBCUniversal will begin sharing the study’s results during the next week via email blasts, followed by one-on-one discussions with key advertising clients as well as its league partners that it focused on in portions of the survey: the NHL, Nascar, the PGA Tour and Premier League soccer.

The company hopes the results will further boost its once-again thriving sports ad marketplace, which includes the NHL’s return, PGA’s FedEx Cup Playoffs on Aug. 20, the Indy 500 on Aug. 23, the Kentucky Derby Sept. 5, Nascar Cup Series playoffs on Sept. 6 and the NFL season on Sept. 10.

Unpausing sports ad buys

NBC Sports paused its advertisers’ commitments when sports went on hiatus in March, and “virtually all” came back now that sports have resumed, “with very few exceptions,” said Lovinger. Sports for the rest of the year is “moving at a good pace right now,” he added.

Last week, Fox Sports said it has sold out more than 90% of its MLB regular season ad inventory, with advertiser demand surging after “proof of performance,” according to Seth Winter, evp of sports sales at Fox Sports.

While NBC Sports isn’t seeing that same level of demand for the less popular NHL, the scatter market has been picking up, said Lovinger, who expects demand to accelerate during the playoff run, especially if broadcast prime-time rating points dry up as entertainment production remains sidelined.

Sunday Night Football sales, meanwhile, have been “stable and strong. We’re not rushing it, largely because there’s been a lack of visibility,” Lovinger said. “We didn’t want to do too much business too soon without knowing what that supply and demand equation really is going to look like.”

However, NBC has been “very cautious” with Norte Dame football, given the uncertainty around whether college football will take place.

Summer Olympics do-over

NBCUniversal’s biggest Covid-related sports revenue loss for 2020 by far was the postponement of the Summer Olympics to next year, which left the company with a $1.25 billion-plus ad revenue hole in the third quarter.

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