The NBA Finals just ended, and just a couple weeks before that the Stanley Cup took place. This gives us a unique opportunity to compare how advertisers treat different sporting events. Typically, it is difficult to compare disparate sporting events because seasonal changes and viewing habits can impact audiences and advertising. But both the NBA Playoffs and the Stanley Cup happen during the summer, and both finals are held at relatively similar times, so the advertising differences we see are likely based more on audience considerations and less on other, outside factors.

Comparing Advertising in the NHL and NBA Playoffs

The NHL playoffs were dominated by fast food advertisers with Dunkin, Domino’s, and Subway all within the top five advertisers in terms of market-level ad occurrences. After fast food, car makers, car dealers, and car insurers cumulatively made up about 25% of ad occurrences. The top ad, however, was from a beverage company, Truly Hard Seltzer, which is the official seltzer of the NHL.

Fast food advertisers were also number one during NBA playoff games with Domino’s making an appearance again and Taco Bell claiming the only other spot in the top advertisers during playoff games. This tracks with what we’d expect given Taco Bell’s sports-related promotion that offers free tacos if a specific set of outcomes happens during the event. In this case, all Americans got a free taco because the Bucks came back and won the Championship. Outside of fast food, Ally Bank had the top ad of the playoffs, highlighting its easy-to-use features and positioning the bank as the obvious choice for the new way to manage finances.

 

While fast food ads dominated both the NHL and NBA finals, they made up over 21% of all market-level occurrences during the NBA playoff games and only 17% of Stanley Cup games. It’s a significant difference that’s made up by auto makers. While cars commercials are still prominent during NBA finals games, they make up 14% of all ads during NHL playoffs as opposed to less than 10% of all occurrences during NBA playoffs. And while Lexus is the number one NHL advertiser, Toyota takes that spot for the NBA playoffs. What’s striking about comparing these two finals series is how different they are while still being very similar. Of the ad categories with the most market level occurrences, 18 are shared in the top 25 of both the NBA finals and NHL playoffs.

However, only 5 advertisers overlap between the top 25 of the two events; Domino’s, Progressive, Capital One, T-Mobile, and Apple. This means that while viewers of each event see fairly similar ad creatives, promoting relatively similar products, they are still seeing almost two entirely different groups of advertisers. Even among the shared top 25 advertisers Domino’s and Progressive are the only two using the same ads at the same relative frequency. Apple, for example, ran almost a completely different set of ads during NHL and NBA playoff games. T-Mobile’s top ad during both was the same, but the lower volume ads they ran hardly overlapped at all.

Top Apple Ad during NHL Playoffs

Top Apple Ad during NBA Playoffs

Ultimately, this is confirmation that sports audiences are not a monolith, and advertisers adjust accordingly. An astute ad strategy takes into account who is watching which event, and tailors content and ad budget accordingly to get the most bang for the brand’s buck.