ESPN Taps Murderous Mascots, Wookies for College Football Campaign

Everyone From the Ducks to Chewbacca Wants a Piece of OSU

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ESPN is teeing up the 2015 college football season with a marketing campaign featuring Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and a legion of vengeful Badgers, Tigers, Bulldogs and Ducks.

The sports colossus on Friday began running "The Message," a new 60-second spot featuring the reigning national champions' field general as he intones his way through a grimly pragmatic pep talk. "They're coming," Coach Meyer rasps, as the camera cuts to a rogue's gallery of mascots clattering their silverware under a sign that reads "Eat Your Enemies."

Created in collaboration with Wieden & Kennedy, New York, the new ESPN spot ends with an ominous shot of more than a dozen mascots lurking on a moonlit lawn while Coach Meyer warns his unseen charges to "Get ready .... They're going to try to take what's ours."

An extension of last season's "Who's In?" campaign, "The Message" offers a cogent picture of a microverse in which score-settling is the currency of the realm. "Ohio State was the fourth-ranked team heading into the playoffs last season, and now everyone's gunning for them," said Aaron Taylor, senior VP of marketing, ESPN. "As the defending national champs they have a huge target on their backs."

While dethroning OSU will be a key thread in this season's overall narrative, the new ESPN spot teases out at least a dozen other storylines. The "Eat Your Enemies" sign, for example, is a replica of the one that hangs in Oregon's jocks-only cafeteria. (Given that Oregon's mascot is an oversized duck, it's hard to imagine the team taking down anything more substantial than a mass of wet bread.) There are also allusions to the 99-year UCLA-USC rivalry, the mutual antipathy of SEC founding members Georgia and Tennessee, and Jim Harbaugh's return to the maize-and-blue delirium of Ann Arbor's Big House.

"There are little nuggets interspersed throughout the spot that will be of interest to fans of those particular teams," Mr. Taylor said. "So, there's Michigan State looking for revenge after losing to Oregon in in the second game of the season" -- an early stumble that effectively scuttled the Spartans' dream of a seventh national championship title. "There are all these little reminders of what happened last year, and how it's time to get revenge," Mr. Taylor said.

Along with the 60-second spot, ESPN will also air two 30-second edits and a pair of 15-second cutdowns. The creative will air until late October, whereupon ESPN will begin teasing the two Dec. 31 playoff games and the Jan. 11 National Championship tilt.

That the playoffs will air on New Year's Eve presents both a challenge and an opportunity for ESPN. As Ed Erhardt, president-global sales and marketing, said this spring during a private confab with representatives from the 15 official College Football Playoff sponsors, ESPN "is going to bring the power of the Walt Disney Co. to this property. We're going to have the entire company behind us. They're all in."

While Mr. Erhardt did not go into great detail about how the Mouse House would help promote the College Football Playoff, Barry Blyn, VP-consumer insights at ESPN, offered the assembled clients a tantalizing hint. "Any time you've got Chewbacca side by side with you, it's a big freaking deal," he said.

Disney's "Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens" opens Dec. 18, or two weeks before the New Year's Eve playoff games kick off.

Speaking of blockbuster theatricals, Mr. Erhardt said Friday that the film studios have been pouring their marketing dollars into the upcoming playoffs and title game. While demand was somewhat muted in the inaugural Championship Game -- only four films were promoted during the broadcast, including Marvel's "The Avengers: The Age of Ultron" -- moviemakers have responded to the broadcast's emergence as a true reach vehicle. (Per Nielsen, the OSU-Oregon throwdown averaged a staggering 33.4 million viewers and a 18.2 household rating, making it the most-watched, highest-rated program in the history of cable TV. The game also out-delivered 4 of the 10 NFL playoff games.)

"When you get those kind of numbers, that tends to stir up a lot of interest," Mr. Erhardt said. "Historically, the movie guys have held their powder until the NFL playoffs and sometimes all the way up to the Super Bowl. But with the success of last year's game, we are now seeing the studios move to take early positions."

As studios continue to push the summer blockbuster season further back into the spring ("Ultron" opened on May 1), long-tail marketing efforts increasingly begin in the snowy months. This shift should also work to ESPN's advantage. That New Year's Eve this year falls on a Thursday night, a big evening each week for movie ads, is also a cozy coincidence.

While the presence of the 15 official College Football Playoff sponsors automatically puts the squeeze on available in-game inventory, demand from emerging categories is also contributing to a quick sell-off. Fantasy sports brands like DraftKings.com and game developers like Supercell ("Clash of Clans," "Boom Beach") are betting big on the three big post-season broadcasts.

In general, the marketplace for regular-season games is so robust that ESPN is nearing sellout levels. Naturally, a few units in each marquee game are being held back to take advantage of a healthy scatter market. Mr. Erhardt said that pricing is up across the board versus the 2014 season, adding that demand for live games on WatchESPN is such that more than 200 sponsors are now buying inventory in the app, up from "around six" just a few years ago.

Buyers said units in last year's championship game averaged out to around $1 million per 30 seconds of air time, with the official sponsors enjoying friends-and-family discounts. (The 15 top sponsors also tend to buy in bulk; last year Ford invested in four spots in the championship game, while Nissan ponied up for a half-dozen units.) As one may well imagine, the price of doing business has increased significantly in light of the overwhelming success of the 2014 title broadcast; some estimates put the price of a championship :30 as high as $1.25 million a pop.

As 14 of the 15 official CFP sponsors -- a cohort that includes the likes of AT&T, Allstate, Dr. Pepper, Capital One, Chick-fil-A and Ford -- signed long-term deals with ESPN, there's very little room for turnover. That said, Vizio has yet to renew its one-year opportunity to serve as the presenting sponsor of the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl.

"We're talking with them about a renewal, but that's the only major sponsorship that isn't locked down," Mr. Erhardt said. "We're having good conversations with them."

ESPN's coverage of the 2015 college football season kicks off Thursday, Sept. 3, with a showdown between the North Carolina Tar Heels and South Carolina Gamecocks. That following Saturday marks the ESPN family's first big prime time game of the season, as Wisconsin takes on Alabama on ABC.

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