ESPN Planning Spring Upfront

Mar 20, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In April, when baseball, the NBA playoffs and, most importantly, the upfront season start, Ed Erhardt wants ad buyers thinking about ESPN. So the sports network is holding an upfront presentation.

Over the past few years, ESPN has held an event for media buyers and sponsors in September, so having an upfront event in April appears to be a change in strategy for Mr. Erhardt, president of ESPN and ABC Sports customer marketing and sales.

“I think sometimes they get singled out as only a cable sports network,” said Mike Law, associate group director for media buyer Carat USA. “Maybe they’re going to tell a story [at the April presentation] about how they deliver male ratings and adult ratings and, ‘Don’t just consider us for cable sports.’ They’re trying to get their name in the mix.”

Mr. Erhardt maintains that spring is a great time of year to be thinking about sports. “I don’t think it’s a question of trying to get more money at one time of the year versus another time of the year based on whether you have a presentation or not,” he said. “We have a number of new properties that we want to make our customers aware of in this particular instance.” Those properties

include “Monday Night Football,” now on ESPN; more Saturday night college football games; and NASCAR. “We’ve made bets on sports that we believe are on the rise,” he said.

Because it is a sports network, ESPN sells upfront ads almost all year. This time of year the important markets are the pro football market, followed by the prime-time and cable markets. ESPN is a big player in all of them.

Mr. Erhardt also wants to be a player in what he’s calling a multimedia upfront. “This year, with broadband being as pervasive as it is, with the clamor that there is for multimedia, we’re very well positioned and we expect to do significant incremental dollars in this upfront as it relates to multimedia,” he said. On the invitation to the event, ESPN said it provides “what fans want when they want it.”

Mr. Erhardt said he expects the bulk of “MNF” inventory to be sold in the football upfront. By the time the cable market rolls around, “We will be in pretty good shape in terms of our sellouts,” he said. He expects positions to be taken by incumbent advertisers from both ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and ESPN’s “Sunday Night Football.” He also expects action from official NFL sponsors, beer companies and the automakers.

“It will be interesting to see what they do with that and how they come out and price it,” Mr. Law said. “Everything I’ve heard is that they’re going to be really aggressive with it and obviously they have a huge bill to pay to the league, so they’ll have to be aggressive. But at the end of the day the marketplace will price it where it should be, probably closer to where their Sunday night pricing was, not where their Monday night pricing on ABC was.”

To increase the revenue generated, Mr. Erhardt has created two advertising packages around “MNF.” An immersion package gives sponsors 24 hours’ worth of ads, stretching from the end of NBC’s new Sunday night football broadcast until the episode of “SportsCenter” following “MNF.” A multiscreen package includes applications on ESPN Deportes, ESPN.com, ESPNHD and ESPN Mobile.

At the April event, Mr. Erhardt will point to the networks’ new college football schedule, he said. Although the Bowl Championship Series has moved to Fox, ABC retained the Rose Bowl and the Capital One Bowl. It also has the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference Championship games, which are essential playoff games because the winners automatically get BCS bids.

Mr. Erhardt said buyers will also get a taste of plans for NASCAR, which revs up next in the third quarter of 2007.

ESPN’s presentation will include ESPN Internet Group Senior VP and General Manager John Skipper, who will discuss the network’s entertainment programming plans following the departure of Executive VP of Programming Mark Shapiro last year. “I think you’re going to continue seeing ESPN in the original entertainment business. Scripted drama, movies and reality shows are all going to be part of the mix,” Mr. Erhardt said.

Sports remains a strong point in a soft market overall for TV advertising. ESPN generates more gross ad revenue than any other cable network, according to Kagan Research. Kagan projects ESPN will have $1.3 billion in gross ad revenues in 2006 and that it will grow to $1.5 billion in 2007.

As for the upfront event itself, “We’re literally creating an immersive sports fan experience,” Mr. Erhardt said. “It will be like a nightclub that is full of sports. We’ll have athletes there, we’ll have our talent there, we’ll have multiple stages that the speakers will be showcased from.” Buses loaded with ESPN swag will take buyers to the event, to be held at Pier 94 on New York’s West Side.