How programmatic is opening up the Olympics to advertisers

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This year, more advertisers than ever will have a shot at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

NBCU and Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) are making inventory on the Peacock streaming platform and the Eurosport website and supporting apps available to buy in private marketplaces (PMP for programmatic advertisers). 

That development could mean brands with smaller budgets can access huge Olympic audiences previously fenced off to big spenders.

“Every time the Olympics come around, all of my clients are asking about how to get in without being a ring holder because of the massive investment that comes along with it,” said Ronnie Beach, U.S. sports lead at Wavemaker Sports, Live & Gaming, without naming specific clients.

NBCU and WBD welcome those investments, but are also working to keep their existing blue-chip client roster reassured that their advertising investments aren’t at risk of running alongside messages from less trusted advertisers. 

Programmatic experiment 

The 2024 Games could be “the ultimate case study” for programmatic buying on live sports coverage, said MiQ’s head of advanced TV Moe Chughtai.

Peacock is set to carry the entire Olympic schedule — over 5,000 hours of live sports — and ads running against that coverage will all be available to buy programmatically, via a partnership with ad tech provider The Trade Desk. Financial details of the partnership were not divulged.

In April, NBCU’s president of Olympic and Paralympic partnerships Dan Lovinger told a press call that the network had already surpassed its own record for digital advertising revenue on Olympics inventory, and had brought in $350 million from advertisers new to the Games. NBCU declined to provide more recent sales figures for this article, but it’s likely that programmatic buying has spurred a portion of that demand.

“It’s bringing in a whole new set of advertisers,” said Verna De Jesus, vp of CTV, audio and publishers for The Trade Desk.

NBCU’s live sports offering was attracting advertisers “that care about real time performance and understanding performance quickly,” and that had previously avoided TV inventory, according to Alison Levin, NBCU president of advertising and partnerships.

At the same time, Warner Bros. Discovery, which holds coverage rights across Europe via its Eurosport brand, has also begun to make inventory on its Olympic coverage available programmatically. 

It launched a new marketplace in May, WBD Connect, which gives advertisers access to ad inventory across CNN International Commercial (CNNIC) and WBD Sports Europe, including Eurosport, in partnership with ad tech vendor Magnite.

While Eurosport streaming ads WBD’s streaming platforms Max and discovery+ will not be available to buy programmatically, the publisher has put ads on the Eurosport website and apps on the table.

Though he declined to share sales figures, Mike Rich, WBD group svp ad sales and brand partnerships, U.K. & Ireland and international, said that nine new FMCG and B2B brand clients had booked Olympic ads programmatically for the site so far. More than 20 advertisers had booked ads with the publisher at the time of publication. “We’ve had huge interest around the Olympics, and not just from traditional clients or IOC sponsors,” he said, without naming names.

Price of entry coming down

In previous years, all but the largest advertisers would have been priced out of Olympic broadcast advertising. Chughtai said programmatic’s lower price of entry was spurring new demand from brands with smaller budgets.

“We’re seeing a lot of excitement from brands that would never have considered an Olympic package or sponsorship,” he said. Sarah Karges, svp of biddable media at Havas Media Network, told Digiday that programmatic ads on Peacock meant the “historically premium space” of the Games was open to smaller brands. 

For Ronen Benatar, portfolio investment lead and group director at Wavemaker U.S., programmatic “democratizes” the Olympic advertising opportunity. “The Olympics is quite an exclusive offering… it had quite exclusive clients taking part traditionally. I’m actually quite impressed with NBC doing this because I think that it allows for more accessibility,” he said.

A more diverse advertising base might also mean viewers are less likely to be subjected to repeat spots in ad breaks. But big-budget brands are also running ads on Peacock, and “are paying a premium to be in an exclusive area,” said Chughtai. Should they be concerned about Peacock and Eurosport letting in the hoi polloi through a programmatic side entrance?

Visa, a commercial partner of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for 38 years, will be running ads on Peacock but via a different route. 

“We’re not doing any programmatic buying,” the payment company’s North America CMO Mary Ann Reilly told Digiday. She said that Visa is set to run ads on linear TV, Peacock and NBC’s Snapchat channels. It is also running a branded film across its own social channels and NBC’s social channels to coincide with the Olympic surfing competition held in Tahiti, French Polynesia.

“You’ve got a billion dollars worth of advertising running over 14 days — there’s going to be lots of advertisers that find their way in,” said Jeff Gagne, svp at Havas Media Network. 

Reilly said Visa’s exclusivity arrangements provided the right level of brand protection. The company is NBC’s exclusive “payments partner” for the Olympics, an agreement that means competitors can’t run ads in the same channels as Visa. As such, she said she’s not concerned that the introduction of smaller advertisers might make Peacock a less-than premium environment.

“We don’t have to worry about that,” Reilly said. “Bigger advertisers are going to decide to have a more holistic view.”

At Wavemaker, Beach said he’d not picked up on quality control concerns from clients. In any case, NBCU aims to pre-empt any concerns with an AI-enabled screening system. 

“I wanted to be sure that whatever we did in this programmatic environment wasn’t going to create a conflict,” NBCU’s Lovinger told Digiday. The broadcaster works with AI and visual learning software company Hive to automate the ad screening process using; should Hive’s system detect a visual or script element that goes against NBCU or the IOC’s advertising rules, it’s flagged for human moderation.

“They’re able to see the spot and very quickly determine whether that spot could have a potential conflict with one of our existing sponsors,” said Lovinger.  “Without that it would have been almost impossible for us to even walk down this road. So we’re excited to sort of introduce this new technology in the biggest possible environment, in sport,” he added.

Like NBCU, the majority of WBD’s inventory is available via PMPs, though it’s also making a limited inventory available to the open market via pre-bid and in-app mediation. Luke Whalley, senior director, global digital ad sales, sports & entertainment, said that because the majority of its programmatic deals had been bought directly, its compliance and ops team were able to check beforehand that ads met IOC rules and its own standards. “We’ve got the luxury of seeing what’s coming down the pipe,” he said.

Games just the beginning

NBCU already credits live sports streaming with attracting new advertisers to its portfolio. Levin told Digiday that the number of advertisers spending on live sports grew 87% last year, though she didn’t share the baseline figure. The company hopes programmatic inventory will act as an on-ramp to larger investments from those clients, she added: “That’s when they come in and buy sponsorships, they buy bigger moments.”

At Havas, Karges said she expects more sporting events to become available to programmatic buyers. “I definitely think that we’ll continue to see publishers, premium publishers and premium opportunities become available programmatically,” she said. While demand from marketers is already present, she said the task for media owners would be to prove their tech solutions and demand side platforms were up to the job. “If we see a lot of success from this year’s Olympics campaigns, that [demand] will continue to grow,” she added.

Chughtai also expects this year’s Games to provide a milestone for programmatic’s use in other sports. That includes the NBA, the rights for which are still being negotiated between the league and rivals NBC and Warner Bros.

“You’ve got to imagine every every streamer and every league is looking at ways that they can increase average revenue per hour from advertising,” he said.

“There’s still tonnes of growth to be had in that world. If you’re a league looking at your revenue mix, you’ve got to be looking at all the options on the table for you.”

Update: A previous version of this story said Visa would run a branded film on NBC. The company clarified that it is running the film on social.

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