playing baseball

Is there too much advertising in sports?

I feel conflicted. I’m a huge sports fan, but recent experiences of watching sporting events both on TV and in the flesh have left me a bit cold. When did sporting events become such spectacles that, on the surface, appear to be more about the advertising opportunity for brands rather than the sport itself?

My distaste for advertising in sports piqued when I watched the US Open on TV in September. A huge tennis fan, I’ve been to both Wimbledon and the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals (now sponsored by Japanese company Nitto) on numerous occasions. So you can imagine my horror when I turned on the TV to watch the US Open, tennis’ fourth and final Grand Slam, and was met with about 45 minutes of celebrity watching, singing, flag waving and an assortment of other activities that didn’t involve two racquets popping a ball back and forth over the net.

I’ve just returned to work from a week-long break to New York. During my time in the Big Apple, I was keen to experience something truly American, so I decided to go to an ice hockey match. The match was taking place at Madison Square Garden and was the season opener – and I was surprised that, for a sport comprised of three 20 minute periods, the actual ‘game’ lasted just over three hours. How? Before the game there was what I can only describe as a 30 minute ‘hype’ session – sound and visual effects, branding as far as the eye could see, blaring music and screaming fans. I felt like I was at a One Direction concert. The intervals between periods of play were filled with celebrity spots, the horror-inducing Jumbotron (I don’t want millions of people to see my face in ultra HD, thank you very much), t-shirts and branded merchandise being thrown into the stands, advertising and much more. I really enjoyed the ice hockey, but I couldn’t help thinking that taking three hours for a one hour sports match was overindulgent.

Perhaps it’s a cultural thing. If you look at advertising in British sports, it’s a lot more subtle. There are TVs replaying Hawkeye calls at Wimbledon, but there certainly isn’t any dance music. Yes, there’s advertising around the tennis court for the tournament’s long-standing sponsors, but it’s a very different feeling.

Sports advertising has been around for years, and there’s a reason for that. You only have to look at the NFL to understand why. According to a recent article by Sports Illustrated, the commercials televised during the Super Bowl have become almost as important as the football game itself. Fox, one of the American broadcasters with rights to air the Super Bowl, has been charging around $5 million for a 30-second ad this year. It’s perhaps no surprise that the price tag is so hefty, given the Super Bowl is watched by a hundred million Americans. If you’re a brand looking for reach and visibility on a huge scale, perhaps sports advertising is the way to go. But I can’t help feeling that this is to the detriment of the sport itself – it dilutes the value of what the athletes have been paid to do, although it no doubt helps teams and individuals gain fans and bag endorsements.

Perhaps I’m a traditionalist; there’s no denying that sports matches provide a lucrative opportunity for brands, but sometimes it would be nice to watch someone play basketball, rugby or baseball without feeling like I’m being bombarded and blinded by commercials. Have sporting events become more about the brands rather than the athletes and the game at hand? After my experiences last week, I’m inclined to say yes, but with attention spans diminishing and consumers becoming as fickle as ever, who can blame them?

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