ESPN: Flexing Its Marketing Muscle

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With live sports gaining ratings and growing ad revenue, ESPN used its upfront presentation on May 17 to reinforce its position, introduce new shows, show off new technology and remind sponsors how it helps drive sales.

Ed Erhardt, president of customer marketing and sales at ESPN, said he expected a strong upfront thanks to an unrivaled slate of sports that create engagement with fans on multiple screens.

On mobile, ESPN said it would begin selling commercials on its WatchESPN app for smartphones and tablets during the college football season. Sean Bratches, executive VP for sales and marketing, said that 2.2 million people are already using an ESPN app. “That’s scale. That’s engagement,” he said.

The presentation included testimonials from marketers Gillette, Taco Bell, Phillips-Van Heusen and Edible Arrangements on how working with ESPN has juiced sales, driven traffic and crashed servers.

“If you have a male target, it’s almost impossible not to be on ESPN,” said Tom Winner, media director, Wieden + Kennedy, whose clients include Nike.

During the presentation, Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers, who hosts the ESPYs in his spare time, noted that he was surprised ESPN even needed to have an upfront. But Page Thompson, CEO of Omnicom Media Group North America, said the event, complete with L.A. Lakers cheerleaders, college mascots and a gaggle of on-air talent, “reinforces the strength we know ESPN has. It’s entertaining, and it gets you excited about the network.”

ESPN made some announcements during its upfront:

* It will be emphasizing new programming on ESPN2 with two new afternoon studio shows: Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable, based in Miami, and Numbers Don’t Lie, which should appeal to fantasy sports fans.

* ESPN announced that during coverage of the final 10 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, the action will not be interrupted by commercials. Instead the network will deploy its NASCAR NonStop format that will feature a split screen showing racing action, a leader board and a prominent ad. “You can’t miss the ad and you won’t miss a moment of action,” said John Skipper, executive VP of content, who dubbed it “sportus non-interruptus.” Fox has also begun showing non-stop action on its NASCAR broadcasts, and Turner Sports has experimented with a similar approach.

* Leading up to this summer’s women’s World Cup in soccer, the network will present “Her/oics” documentaries. The series of six short films on women involved in the sport begins June 25 on ESPN2 and will also appear on espnW, the sports Website for women.

* The ESPN X Games will be expanded with four events outside the U.S. joining two in America, starting in 2013. Potential cities will bid to host the new events, joining Aspen, Los Angeles and Tignes, France.

* ESPN Deportes plans to air its first original scripted series, El Diez, a 10-episode drama about a professional soccer player in Mexico City.

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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