Evoking the feeling of a New Orleans sports rally, complete with lively band and dancers, ESPN made a case for its strength as an advertising partner by featuring its new lineup, its dedication to storytelling and journalism and the power of live sports to give it a competitive edge at its Upfront presentation in New York on Tuesday (May 16) morning. This even when the sports broadcasting giant has seen falling ad revenues and recently had to cut budgets and lay off employees, including some high-profile anchors and analysts.
Still, the networks came out optimistic and swinging for the fences. John Skipper, president, ESPN and co-chairman, Disney and ESPN Media Networks, stated up top that “sports engenders optimism” and “we begin every season with hope”. He said that the current media and television environment meant that ESPN needs to be realistic and respond to change. Still, he said that the platform is strong, reaching more than 210 million Americans a month last fall, the largest in ESPN history, with digital products reaching 100 million. He also touted the “unmatched commitment to journalism” with shows like Outside the Lines, E: 60 and the continuing evolution of SportsCenter, boasting “personality and authority”. He said that high-quality programming and live sports matter, especially to the coveted affluent male aged 18-35.
Vikram Somaya, senior vice president, global data officer and ad platforms, ESPN, upped the ante by adding emotion to the winning advertising equation, saying that using data and feedback from its digital platform can predict behavior and lead to better targeted advertising. He said that their software breaks down games and programs into hundreds of triggers that let advertisers know best when to reach a particular viewer or viewership, especially as 40 million ESPN viewers have told them what kind of fan they are. He used successes from Coors Light, Dick’s Sporting goods and BBVA compass to drive home his point. “The emotion of sports creates actions that drive outcomes,” he said.
Eric Johnson, executive vice president, global ad revenue and sales operations, talked measurement and a partnership with Nielsen to offer clients one number on which to transact for live sports – every impression, every screen, 24 hours, third party verified, to simplify and verify how dollars are spent and the success of any campaign across media. The impact of live-viewed impressions, he said, were important at a time when there is greater focus on brand-safe and viewable environments.
After that, it was time to trot out the talent. Mike Greenberg, the former Mike & Mike co-host, announced his new morning show, starting January 1, 2018, without his old partner Mike Golic, who will remain on mornings. He interviewed a pregnant Serena Williams on stage, giving a taste of what the new show might feature.
Scott Van Pelt, SportsCenter anchor, assured that the 18-35 year-olds “ are watching us at midnight than any other show in any genre, head to head.”
A mass of college and pro football on-air talent – Suzy Kolber, Rece Davis, Jon Gruden, Randy Moss, Charles Woodson, and new analyst and former coach Rex Ryan – talked about the strength of live football and the emotional connection of its fans to help drive viewership and advertising.
It was all pretty normal until longtime anchor Kenny Mayne came down from the rafters with angel wings on cables as an "angel of advertising", which he joked was “a metaphor for the strength of cable.” Mayne provided honesty and comic relief, saying that viewership has declined and that it’s tougher for ESPN to grab share, but he added that advertisers need television.
It was interesting to see ESPN come from a position of the challenger, especially after a strong Upfront numbers showing from Fox Sports the day previous. But ESPN held true to its roots as a leader in live sports, talking about its reach into the Latino market with Deportes and Nacion ESPN, as well as its reach to a younger, socially connected audience, which it displayed with singer Kelly Rowland and basketball player Joel Embiid, both of whom are prominent on social media.
Ed Erhardt, president, global sales and marketing, ESPN, talked about trust. “If we have trust we’re able to make decisions with confidence,” he said, noting that viewers trust the viability of the platform, the on-air personalities, the dedication to solid journalism and the ties to Disney to help advertisers further reach consumers.
While ESPN is reconsidering, recalibrating and reallocating, according to Erhardt, the network sees strength in its future, with an obligation and responsibility of brand safety to its advertisers and strength of new programming for its viewership.