ESPN Wants to Stay on Top of Sports World

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ESPN is the champion of the sports TV business and it’s not about to let new competitors or the government pull an upset.

After an upfront presentation Tuesday morning in Times Square that showed off new programming to attract fans and create new opportunities for advertisers that left the audience hungering for Cheez-Its, ESPN president John Skipper held for on the state of the industry.

On stage, he addressed the elephant in the room accompanied by the Alabama Crimson Tide’s mascot, saying that having strong, well-heeled rivals “makes us better, it makes us smarter.”

Off stage, he said that what’s most important in the national cable business is distribution and generating high subscriber fees and live content fans want to see and urged pundits to “look at what we have and look at what they have.” Skipper’s analysis: “We have a significantly broader and better portfolio.”

He said many of ESPN’s rights deals are locked up for years, even decades, in some cases. And ESPN will aggressively pursue one that comes up for grabs. ESPN is in “ongoing and constructive” talks about the U.S. Open tennis tournament. And he said ESPN considered the NBA “a core product for us,” indicating that national sports cable upstarts NBCU and Fox are in for a fight if they try to get into the basketball business.

That said, Skipper added that both Comcast — parent of NBCU — and Fox both have significant resources enabling them to play the long game. “We don’t expect them to be over and done,” he said.

The notion that sports networks are taking up an outsized share of subscribers’ cable bills stems in part from the proliferation of regional sports channels being built around individual teams. Skipper said that

ESPN’s business is “very different” from what RSNs offer in terms of ratings and live programming.

Skipper was asked about Sen. John McCain’s legislation that would open the cable business to an a la carte programming model. Skipper said that McCain was “dead wrong” and that “it is the popular channels that hold everything together” for consumers, who get tremendous value in the current bundle of programming options.

Ed Erhardt, president for global customer marketing and sales at ESPN, said the network is active in selling the remaining ads in the NBA playoffs now. The network has inventory left in the finals as it waits to see what the matchup will be. “The NBA is on fire,” Erhardt said. He also said other than the NBA finals, there aren’t a lot of ratings points available, with most broadcast shows down and their finales sold out.

Erhardt also said that advertisers were buying the 2014 World Cup, ESPN’s last before the global tournament moves to Fox.

Erhardt said the college and pro football hadn’t started to move yet, although advertisers were interested in details on the new college football championship playoffs, which starts in 2014.

“No other genre has performed better as the market has fragmented than sports,” he said.

Complete Coverage: Upfronts 2013

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