- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2009

Whether they’re airing promos with ballplayers and aliens or showing trailers for the latest holiday flick, sports leagues and their broadcast partners have kept strong ties with Hollywood even as other sponsors and advertisers have cut back.

With baseball in the middle of its most tense World Series in years and the NFL season in full swing, big-budget movies have gotten considerable play in stadiums and on television as movie studios look to advertise to the largest audience possible.

James Cameron-directed “Avatar” got big play Sunday: The trailer for the sci-fi film was shown to more than 80,000 people on the massive high-definition screens inside Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. That evening, scenes from the movie were spliced with baseball highlights as part of Fox’s introduction to Game 4 of the World Series.

Meanwhile, the studios behind upcoming films, including Disney’s “A Christmas Carol,” Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes” and Columbia Pictures’ “2012,” have kicked up their late-season ad push during broadcasts of all the major sports. Paramount promoted its DVD release of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” by sponsoring two cars during the Oct. 17 Sprint Cup race in Concord, N.C.

“Anything that brings together a large number of people, the movie studios are going to be interested in that,” Major League Baseball spokesman Matt Bourne said. “There is often a synergy there and a similar kind of audience where it makes sense for them to team up with us.”

Sporting events are usually watched live, so advertising has greater impact. NASCAR races and postseason games also tend to maintain viewership through the entire broadcast.

“With a film of this magnitude [like the “Transformers” sequel], we try to make it an event, so we try to align with an event,” said Russell Kelban, senior vice president of marketing for Paramount.

This time of year, sporting events are among the most watched programs, with baseball and NFL broadcasts landing bigger numbers than most prime-time shows. Factoring in the high viewership among men over 18, it’s no wonder studios have sought to partner with sports leagues.

“They have certainly used sponsorship to promote new releases and licensed merchandise over the years,” said William Chipps, editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report. “They are particularly drawn to the big, national type of sports properties that offer media exposure.”

Connections between sports and movies aren’t new, but some ad campaigns have become more visible as other major industries have cut ad budgets.

“[Studios] do have marketing dollars to spend,” Chipps said.

Movie studios spent $1.34 billion on TV advertising during the first half of 2009, up from $1.28 billion during the same period in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Spending on sports advertising was not available, but industry sources said it likely increased by a similar margin.

“Everything got affected last year, but while the movie companies may have had a few less releases than they’ve had in the past, they have really stepped up more in supporting movies on a scattered basis,” said Neil Mulcahy, executive vice president of sports sales for Fox Broadcasting Co.

It helps that sports broadcasters and studios often have the same parent companies. “Avatar” is being distributed by 20th Century Fox, a sister company to Fox Broadcasting. ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Co. NBC and Universal Studios operate under the same NBC Universal Inc. umbrella.

But leagues have been just as aggressive as broadcasters in tying themselves to Hollywood. The NBA and studios have been partnering for more than a decade and last spring struck deals to promote a new movie during each round of the playoffs. The league also partnered with Columbia Pictures on promotions for “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” during its annual Christmas Day game.

“What we’ve seen is that it becomes harder and harder to get to an aggregation of an audience that is attractive to the movie studios,” said Mark Tatum, the NBA’s executive vice president of marketing partnerships. “What the NBA does is we aggregate that audience for them. They know if you have a big summer blockbuster movie, there’s a surefire way to get to a big group of moviegoers in a captivated way - and that’s the NBA playoffs and the NBA Finals.”

Not all these deals have worked well. In 2004, MLB was forced to scale back a tie-in with “Spider-Man 2” after fans complained about plans to place the film logo on the bases at ballparks across the country.

But such missteps haven’t prevented new deals. This summer, MLB launched a broad partnership with Disney for “G-Force.” It included a promotion in which 1 million people would have earned a free ticket to the movie if a player hit a grand slam during the All-Star Game. (No one did.)

“It was a really integrated promotion that really worked for us,” Bourne said. “And it’s something we’d like to do more of.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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