It’s been a whirlwind two years for the regional FOX Sports Networks. In 2019, they were acquired by The Walt Disney Company following its acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Then, just a few months later, the Disney Company sold the channels (which did not include FS1 or FS2, which are owned by FOX Corporation) to Sinclair. At the time, Sinclair licensed the FOX Sports Network name under the condition that they would rebrand the channels in the future.
Well, that time is now after Sinclair sold the naming rights to its regional sports networks to the Bally’s casino corporation for $85 million.
We’re already used to kits being covered in advertisements. Then came sponsored stadium names. And now, this is the next frontier in sports advertising with TV networks named after gambling companies.
While it would be relatively easy to criticize the decision as a step backwards for sports, it’s actually a very smart maneuver by Bally’s Corporation. Here’s why:
1. In all, 19 regional sports networks will bear the Bally’s name. The newly named RSNs that will carry MLS franchises include Bally Sports Southeast (Atlanta United), Bally Sports Ohio (Columbus Crew), Bally Sports Kansas City (Sporting KC), and Bally Sports North (Minnesota United). In the past, select FC Dallas matches have appeared on Fox Sports Southwest, which is now Bally Sports Southwest.
Bally’s President George Papanier, as quoted in Sports Video Group News, called the deal “a rewarding first step in a transformational partnership that is going to revolutionize the U.S. sports betting, gaming and media industries.” Papanier added, “we look forward to integrating Bally’s unique content…across Sinclair’s live game day coverage and providing unrivaled sports gamification on a national scale.”
2. Bally’s move is clever on several fronts. Advertising itself via naming entire networks minimizes the risk of backing a loser. What’s the return on investment for advertising on a single club’s shirt or stadium if that club is crummy? What kind of positive exposure is Motorola getting out of advertising on Chicago Fire’s shirts when the Fire only have two swift first round playoff exits since 2010? What is Dick’s Sporting Goods getting for paying $40 million to put its name on the Colorado Rapids’ stadium with the club not a national fixture and the stadium having relatively weak attendance?
And if advertising on a club’s shirt raises brand awareness, wouldn’t such advertising make rival fans aware that they should avoid that brand? If Zulily advertising on Sounder shirts is supposed to make Sounder supports more liable to use Zulily then wouldn’t it, in turn, make Portland Timbers fans and other Sounder haters avoid Zulily?
Bally’s will also receive far more exposure from this deal than sponsoring a specific club or stadium. The Bally’s logo will appear every time a highlight from one of the dozens of teams on its branded RSNs is shown on SportsCenter or social media. Bally’s name and logo will appear on every upcoming schedule and in conversation whenever fans talk about where the game is on.
3. Bally’s move is also clever because it avoids restrictions and regulations on traditional gambling advertising. In 2019, several US casinos voluntarily agreed to a code of conduct for advertising sports gambling. The thrust of that code was to avoid marketing to young people. Moreover, traditional sports gambling advertisements on the radio, in print, on social media or on TV are usually accompanied by warnings about gambling addiction and links to problem gambler helplines.
MLS clubs have expanded their partnerships with gambling companies in recent times. For example, DC United wears a gambling ad on its shirtsleeves and will offer a year-round sportsbook at its stadium. But MLS itself has advised that gambling advertising should be limited to avoid youth exposure. As Front Office Sports explained, “MLS is requiring clubs to make sure that all advertising for sports betting or spirits be directed to an age-appropriate audience for both products. That means no MLS players under the age of 21 can be included in advertising for spirits, and no sports betting or spirits partner will appear on youth-sized replica jerseys or on the front of club youth academy jerseys.”
But Bally’s RSN naming rights deal avoids all of that. It’s a key move to normalize sports gambling in a country that had shunned it, at least legally, for so long. There will be no consumer warnings attached to the logo and now sports fans of all ages will be exposed to this unique form of gambling advertising. Even fans that don’t watch those RSNs will see the logo and name routinely mentioned and shown in local and national sports media. If you pay attention to sports at all, then Bally’s advertising via sports network naming will essentially be a billboard that you can’t avoid seeing.
4. Will other sports networks sell their names to advertisers? Why not? Most sports fans and media members have readily accepted all the other forms of sports advertising that have come down the pike over the years, up to and including the NHL selling naming rights to its divisions.
It’s telling to compare sports with other forms of entertainment like movies and music. Why don’t ads appear below the Wu-Tang “W” or beside the Rolling Stones’ tongue logo on official shirts? Replica Spider-Man or Batman shirts for kids (and adults) don’t feature ads next to the iconic spider and bat silhouettes. Why not? Because then music and movie fans would probably buy fewer shirts.
But most sports fans happily pay a pretty penny to buy replica merchandise ladled with ads. And sports fans happily include the advertisements when drawing or photoshopping players to post on social media. And, despite conflicts with their own paying advertisers, media outlets often perform this kind of free advertising as well when they create infographics or photoshop trade and transfer targets into their potential new uniforms.
As a hobby, sports are a happy illusion that we retain from childhood. Within that hobby, is the name of a sports network sacred? No, no more so than a jersey or a stadium name. But the pervasiveness of advertising in nearly every aspect of the modern sports viewing experience is just a tough reminder that, to them, we aren’t fans – we are customers.
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