Upfronts 2016: Skipper Says ESPN Still Has ‘A Little Swagger’ Despite Sub Losses

Network chief says out-of-home and multiplatform ratings make total picture rosier

Complete Coverage: Upfronts 2016

While ESPN’s subscriber losses have contributed to recent Disney investor angst, network president John Skipper told reporters after ESPN’s upfront presentation he sees plenty of reason for optimism.

“We’re quite encouraged by many of the discussions we are having with new distributors, over-the-top distributors, and new packages,” he said. “We’ve gotten some real traction with distributors like Sony [PlayStation Vue] and Sling and others. We’ve said repeatedly, we like our hand. You saw today. We think we still have a little swagger. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as being in the crosshairs [of Wall Street skeptics]. But we’re going to continue to perform.” Asked if ESPN was currently positioning itself for a stand-alone OTT offering, Skipper offered a flat, “No.”

The comments came after the company’s annual pitch to media buyers, held in its traditional home at the Minskoff Theatre and complete with the trappings of Broadway in the form of original music featuring Hamilton stars Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. (“It’s great to have the real cast members of Hamilton with us this morning,” said Ed Erhardt, president of global sales and marketing, in a dig at NBC’s Jimmy Fallon-as-Hamilton opener on Monday.)

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The smoothly choreographed, 90-minute prelude to ABC’s afternoon session revolved around the theme “the speed of live.” Shrewdly edited highlights playing on a movie-theatre-sized screen, underscoring ESPN’s role in events such as the rise of NBA MVP Steph Curry, the last stand of tennis great Serena Williams, and the dominance of college football. On-air talent mingled with top-tier athletes including Brett Favre, Chris Paul, Bryce Harper and Noah Syndergaard, and brand execs from Voya and Colgate-Palmolive extolled the virtues of ESPN’s reach, especially with millennial men. (Scott Van Pelt’s midnight edition of SportsCenter even out-draws late-night rivals like Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert among men 18 to 34. “We beat them all and I’m as shocked as you are,” the host said.)

Kenny Mayne, a mainstay of both ESPN and its upfront, delivered another bone-dry five-minute set skewering the ad-sales ritual. “Every year, they bring me out to address you on our most important message. Last year, it was Big Data. What the hell ever happened with that? This year I’m going to talk about viewability,” he declared, as a small stage elevator showed him only from the waist up in the middle of the stage. “This is me at 49%.”

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Trying to watch that amount of ESPN was akin to watching a football game while “Aunt Dixie rearranges the coffee table books” and blocks the screen. “You miss the whole picture. Sit your fat ass down, Aunt Dixie. We’re trying to determine what a catch is. (That’s a football joke.)”

Less riotous but equally deft was new Monday Night Football announcer Sean McDonough, who succeeds Mike Tirico as just the fifth play-by-play man in franchise history. When MNF broadcasts a September matchup between the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders from Mexico City, he noted, “We will be down in Mexico. It’s relatively early in the season, so we won’t have to climb a ginormous wall to get there." The Donald Trump quip might have seemed routine in other settings but qualified as a sharp poke for a network not known for political provocation. Color analyst Jon Gruden clapped, and the line drew hearty applause.

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There were a few new initiatives in the mix, notably some aimed at combating the sense of a longtime monopoly power facing stiff challenges due to shifting viewer and consumer habit and options. Live Connect is a new tool designed to gauge the emotional state of sports fans and unlock advertising opportunity. The authenticated WatchESPN app will now be available on Android TV and included on all new Nexus Players.

ESPN also talked up the addition of out-of-home viewing stats as part of Nielsen’s Total Audience Measurement rollout. By 2017, out-of-home will be an official part of the Nielsen data set, but ESPN is starting to release the numbers as of today.

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Skipper told reporters the lift from viewing at bars, restaurants, gyms and dorm rooms, is in the range of 6.5% to 7% for all programming, with as much as 12 to 15% for college football and pregame telecasts. Watch ESPN, where 60% of streams are seen on TV sets, adds a 3% bump to linear ratings. These multiplatform ratings “will provide a narrative that is accurate” about ESPN’s reach, Skipper said.

Asked about the flagging ratings of SportsCenter, the network’s bedrock franchise, Skipper said it was poised for a bounce-back after some tweaks.

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“Any narrative that SportsCenter does not remain central to a sports fan’s experience is inaccurate,” he told reporters. “We have to make every hour distinct. It was sort of on all the time and we didn’t differentiate.”

The recent departures of major talent including Tirico and Skip Bayless (on top of last year’s exits of Bill Simmons, Keith Olbermann and others) were not glossed over onstage or in Skipper’s postgame comments. Post-Bayless, First Take host Stephen A. Smith “is going to have to form a relationship with someone new,” said His and Hers cohost Jemele Hill. Skipper shrugged, “I didn’t see any lack of talent today.” Prodded about the dismissal of baseball analyst Curt Schilling for his sharing of inflammatory social media memes, the president cracked, “There’s been no lack of shilling today.”