If election night were a television program, its 71 million plus viewers would place it second only to the Super Bowl as the most watched event of 2008. In a year of remarkable sporting events, coverage of the Presidential qualifying rounds also drew huge ratings, as the candidates sparred in primaries, conventions, and debates in hopes of becoming the last one standing.
Sports metaphors in politics and the intermingling of the two genres are nothing new: retired athletes fill the halls of congress, Presidents throw out first pitches, and Championship teams visit the White House. However, President-elect Barack Obama utilized Sports Programming like no candidate in history. His campaign spent an estimated $5 million on commercials during the Olympics (it also bears mentioning that Chicago's chance of hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics received a huge boost on Tuesday Night).
Dating back to the beginning of this year, there have been 7,416 "Obama for President" commercial units in live sporting events, and 1,081 during the NFL season alone, as the Presidential race wound down. There was the "Obama Infomercial" that delayed the World Series game between the Phillies and Rays by a few minutes. According to Nielsen Media Research, 33.7% of those Obama Infomercial viewers also tuned in to watch the Phillies clinch their first Championship since 1980. [more on Obama and McCain's advertising]
Sports remains one of the last bastions of live television, giving politicians a better chance their 30-second spots aren't bypassed in a DVR World. The huge ratings that sporting events receive also provide a platform to speak to a wide ranging constituency of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Professional leagues and sports networks welcome the election year as a new source of advertising dollars, even more critical in an economic downturn.
But the Obama campaign did more than just break out their checkbook for commercial time. A relative newcomer to many Americans back in December 2006, then Senator Obama introduced his hometown Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. That night, 11.1 million viewers watched as Obama declared "I'd like to put all the doubts to rest and announce... to all of America... that I am ready... for the Bears to go all the way!" He would later announce his political plans to go all the way in Springfield in February 2007.
It is also a prerequisite for Presidential candidates to display an athletic ability and passion for fitness and Obama had this base covered as well. In an April interview with Bryant Gumbel on HBO's Real Sports, Obama explained his love of basketball, and the lessons it has taught him about sacrifice and team work. That episode of Real Sports was replayed on HBO 15 times for a total of 1.7 million viewers, and the segment received an additional 159,000 views on YouTube. After a long line of Presidents who are avid golfers, Obama's frequent pickup basketball games will be one of many signs that we may have a new type of President in the making.
On Monday Night, and his last chance to address the nation before the polls opened on Tuesday, Obama (along with Senator McCain) returned to Monday Night Football, for an interview at halftime of the Steelers-Redskins game. The game was watched by 14.2 million viewers on ESPN, the second most viewed cable event of the year. Obama again utilized his change mantra, this time to champion a cause close to many sports fans, the need for a college football playoff system. We can only hope.