'CONTENDER 2' SEARCHES FOR BRAND SPONSORS

Mark Burnett Productions to Handle All Ad Sales

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The deal: The first season of NBC’s The Contender lined up a number of integration partners, including Everlast, Toyota, Home Depot, and Gatorade and Sierra Mist.

The result: Despite lower-than-hoped-for ratings, the first round’s sponsors are in talks to return for round two on ESPN.



Can 'The Contender' win the hearts of women viewers? ESPN thinks it can.


Despite lower-than-expected ratings, Mark Burnett’s boxing reality series The Contender is proving it’s no loser among marketers as the show gears up for a second round.

The series, which is moving from NBC to sports cable giant ESPN, doesn’t officially start airing new episodes until April, but producers behind the show, including Mark Burnett, DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sylvester Stallone, are confident the brands that backed the first series will return for additional installments.

Everlast

Already, Everlast Worldwide has said it will return as a sponsor, supplying the series with boxing equipment, active wear, T-shirts and shoes. Its logo will appear on the set, and the company will sell Contender-branded apparel at sporting goods stores.

Toyota Motor Sales, Home Depot and Pepsi-Cola’s Gatorade and Sierra Mist brands are also considering coming back. Discussions are currently under way with producers. A yet-to-be-disclosed advertiser that wasn’t in the first installment is also in talks to appear in the second, said Mark Burnett Productions’ Conrad Riggs. Deals, including one with a yet-to-be-disclosed brand, are not finalized.

The return of the first season's sponsors may be somewhat surprising, given the ratings, but marketers, including Toyota, Gatorade and Everlast said they were happy with the exposure their brands received. Everlast said it saw an uptick in sales of its athletic gear as a result of the series.

At its high point, the show pulled in just nearly 8 million viewers while the lowest-rated episode pulled an audience of 5 million. In the 18- to 49-year-old demographic category, the show averaged between 3 million and 4 million viewers.

EPSN aims for women

The show also delivered hard-to-reach younger males for NBC on Sunday nights against ABC's blockbuster femme drama Desperate Housewives. Ironically, just as marketers are hoping that The Contender will help them target young males, ESPN is eyeing the series as a way to attract a strong female audience, said Ron Wexler, senior VP-director of development at ESPN Original Entertainment. He said he was stunned by the level of online commentary about the boxers from women who had watched the show.

The Contender 2 will tape over seven weeks in January and February and start airing on ESPN in April under the ESPN Original Entertainment banner, which has also broadcast Dream Job. The show will continue to revolve around the lives of 16 boxers from both coasts as they live and train together and compete both inside and outside the ring.

In addition to plans to have some of the first season’s boxers make cameo appearances during The Contender's second season, ESPN is also planning to broadcast three live events before The Contender 2’s debut featuring the show’s fighters.

Rematch between first season finalists

ESPN will start promoting The Contender's return by airing the first live event Oct. 15 -- a rematch between the two finalists from the first season held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

If the sponsors for The Contender’s second outing won’t change, the deal points certainly will.

Marketers spent millions to be affiliated with the show’s initial season, with Toyota spending from $14 million to $16 million in integration fees to be the show’s sole automotive sponsor and promote its line of trucks to younger male viewers.

The automaker has so far only agreed to sponsor the October rematch, with Toyota’s logo expected to appear in the boxing ring. Toyota will also air commercials around the bouts that tout its trucks.

Toyota not committed yet

It is not yet officially on board to back the new season, but said it would if the price is right.

With ESPN now housing the series, marketers could see the show's price tag drop considerably.

On the other hand, as one brand rep put it, “It’s still Mark Burnett. He’ll reach high.”

Everlast brokered its deal with Contender Partners, a venture between Mark Burnett Productions, DreamWorks Television and ESPN.

As part of the agreement, all three are equity partners in the show, but instead of ESPN handling airtime sales, Mark Burnett Productions will sell all the commercial inventory for the show’s 13 one-hour episodes. Mark Burnett Productions sold a limited amount of airtime around The Contender on NBC. But this is the first time the company will sell an entire show.

Ticket sales profits

Additionally, Mark Burnett Productions is now a licensed boxing promoter in California and Nevada and will share in profits from ticket sales. The full season of The Contender 2 will most likely air in ESPN’s Tuesday Night Fight slot.

As part of its deal to pick up the show from NBC, ESPN has the option to renew the series for two additional seasons.

Mr. Wexler is overseeing much of the production now that his boss, Mark Shapiro, left the company. Mr. Shapiro, who made the deal with Mr. Burnett and Mr. Katzenberg, is now spearheading a bid for theme park Six Flags.

Mr. Wexler said there would be some alterations to the ESPN version of the show.

For example, Mr. Stallone will remain one of the show’s executive producers, but he’s expected to have less of a presence onscreen. Producers are scouting for a new “Contender Gymnasium.” “And there will be a greater emphasis on boxing and training,” Mr. Wexler said. “Those sections might be expanded. A lot of people felt that the soapy elements [didn't work]. ... We want to get the energy of the last 10 minutes and push them forward.”

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Marc Graser contributed to this report.
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