When most people think of big events and ESPN, they picture Wrigley Field, the Rose Bowl or the Fabulous Forum. Yet the sports network-its ad sales staff in particular-is suiting up for a big event at Lincoln Center, New York’s cultural hub.
For the second year, Ed Erhardt, president, customer marketing and sales, for ESPN and ABC Sports, will invite media buyers and sports TV sponsors to an Oct. 29 event similar to the upfront presentations made by broadcast networks. ESPN billed last year’s event as the “Sports Upfront.” This year, “We’re referring to it as our annual sports industry event,” Mr. Erhardt said.
As the first network to carry all four major sports, ESPN is the big dog in the category and wants to remind buyers of the power of sports. “We represent 50 percent of all the gross ratings points in sports, so for us it’s not about being the most dominant player in sports. It’s about how do we make sports a more important part of your overall marketing plan?” Mr. Erhardt said.
Attendees will meet and greet ESPN on-air talent and have their pictures taken with the championship trophies from the major sports. The presentation will be telecast via closed circuit to Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Bristol, Conn., where the network is based.
“I think [ESPN] should have a time where people are devoting attention to what they’ve got,” said Tim Spengler, executive VP, director of national broadcast, at Initiative.
The event’s theme is what’s new and what’s next. Mr. Erhardt contends that sports programming is on the cutting edge of the technologies that could have huge impact on the television business in the next 12 to 18 months. Mr. Erhardt calls such technologies-including broadband, high definition, on-demand and pay-per-view-“game changers” that executives in the sports business and sponsors of sports programming must be thinking about.
“We think that to a large degree it’s an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process, and that’s a big part of what we want to have people recognize,” Mr. Erhardt said.
ESPN plans to have an all-star team of speakers. A panel dealing specifically with technology will include Steve Burke, president of Comcast Cable; Dan Wieden, president of Wieden & Kennedy, the ad agency that creates commercials for ESPN and Nike; Colleen Arnold, manager of global communications for IBM, which in addition to being a major advertiser is also trying to help organizations, including the NFL, create businesses using digitized video; Bob Johnson, founder of BET and the new owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats; and George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN. Moderated by ESPN anchor Bob Ley, the panelists will be asked how technology will affect their businesses.
Another panel will address the role of athletes as brands. Speakers will include Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, Women’s National Basketball Association star Lisa Leslie and agent Mark Steinberg.
There also will be a retrospective of 10 years of ESPN advertising by Wieden & Kennedy. Some new ESPN advertising will be shown as well.
The event also will be to some degree a sales meeting, designed to rally agencies and advertisers to spend more money on sports in general and on ESPN/ABC Sports in particular.
“There will be an occasional, we hope well-crafted sales message that our customer will feel is done in a way that is appropriate,” Mr. Erhardt said.
ESPN has been positioning sports in prime time as a safe option for advertisers. “If you buy the National Football League, you’re pretty sure you’re going to get a pretty good number,” Mr. Erhardt noted. In addition to Sunday night and Monday night NFL football, ESPN offers the college football Bowl Championship Series, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup, the Little League World Series and the X Games. “We think those events are breakthrough. We think that the people who tune into them are highly engaged in them. They’re not grazing. Thus we think [they deserve] a bigger part of anybody’s consideration,” he said.
Initiative’s Mr. Spengler didn’t know if clients were shifting prime-time budgets to sports, or whether that would be a wise call. “It depends on what you’re comparing. Is it the baseball playoffs vs. September prime? It depends on the events and the price. Sports isn’t cheap,” he said.
The presentation will also highlight changes on deck at ESPN2, which is marking its 20th anniversary. “ESPN2 is really going to get a lot of pop and interest and resources,” Mr. Erhardt said. ESPN also will make announcements about its HDTV network, new on-demand offerings and pay-per-view products, he said.
“We’re going to really showcase HD at the presentation as well as at the cocktail party,” Mr. Erhardt said. Right now, ESPN has Best Buy and Philips as sponsors of its HD telecasts. But during the telecasts themselves, no advertiser is paying extra to be a part of the HD channel, which essentially simulcasts what’s being shown on the standard ESPN channels.
Mr. Erhardt said that while some movie advertisers placed high-definition commercials on the HD broadcast of the Super Bowl, ESPN HD right now doesn’t have enough distribution to interest most advertisers.
The sports marketplace is in “pretty good shape,” right now, Mr. Erhardt said. NFL football is nearly sold out through the fourth quarter, and NBA basketball is pacing “very ahead” of last year.
“Of all the sports that we have in our portfolio, the sport that’s really done well for us and is clearly well ahead of our projections and well ahead of last year is college football,” he said, estimating that sales are up 35 percent.